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'Jungle Cruise' review: Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt head up 'Pirates of the Caribbean' without a paddle

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Four minutes into what feels like a four-week, no-expenses-paid “Jungle Cruise,” Emily Blunt’s character — a swashbuckling botanist, romancing a priceless Amazonian stone arrowhead — is sneaking around a London explorer’s society laboratory, trying not to be seen as she purloins the artifact, Indiana Jones style.

A first-rate comic actress as well as a rousing action heroine, Blunt does this great thing where she shuts one eye while closing the door she’s hiding behind. It’s a two-second bit, and perfectly executed punctuation in a Disney theme park movie overloaded with question marks.

Such as: Why? That’s easy: “Jungle Cruise” exists because it’s a generic but trademarked title, and now a movie, adapted from the Disneyland water ride. Therefore it’s Disney’s IP, which stands for Intellectual Property but also It’s Paltry.

Another question mark: Why does “Jungle Cruise” play like a “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel with a terrible sense of geography? Because that ride-turned-franchise, five films and counting, grossed $4.5 billion worldwide in pre-pandemic times. It’s good for the stock ticker, in other words, if not much good for summer moviemaking with a beating heart.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s mechanical thrill-seeker begins in 1916, with Kaiser Wilhelm’s sniveling homicidal maniac son (Jesse Plemons, skillful but joyless) on the hunt for the magical arrowhead holding the secret of an Amazon river curse; a gaggle of entombed demon conquistadors waiting for their wake-up call; and a miraculous tree flower that could change the course of blah blah blah. Botanist Lily Houghton (Blunt, decked out in a cushier early edition of Indy’s fedora) and her fearful brother (Jack Whitehall, playing a patronized ninny, even after a key reveal) embark to Brazil to see what’s what.

They’re to meet up with the weaselly entrepreneur who runs all the local river tours — all, that is, except the rickety vessel skippered by the mysterious Frank. That’s the Johnson role, of course, and in costuming Frank is meant to recall Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen,” though Johnson (amiable as ever, and producer as well as star) is a mite large for Bogart’s wee skipper hat.

The screenplay by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa leans heavily on testy banter between “Skippy” and “Pants.” The Blunt character wears pants, so the river captain calls her pants. A lot. The comic-relief Italian weasel? He’s played by Paul Giamatti, who infuses an insane amount of brio and topspin into his opening line, “Buongiorno, Frankie boy!” It was enough for me to write the sentence “THANK GOD FOR PAUL GIAMATTI” in my notes, though the character’s sidelined soon afterward.

“Jungle Cruise” jumbles together zombie conquistadors (Edgar Ramirez plays Aguirre, infested with his own deadly snakes — there’s a ton of death-by-snakebite or strangulation in this movie) and a genocidal proto-Nazi, Plemons’ character, piloting a World War I submarine. “Who brings a submarine to the Amazon?” Frank asks at one point. Blunt’s derring-do has its stray moments, and her comic wiles are most welcome. But this is blockbustering from a talented director whose talent has been pounded flat by the dictates of a script in the quality range of Disney’s “Lone Ranger.”

A typical 10-second dialogue sequence, such as a nighttime conversation between the leads, gets chopped into 10 separate one-second shots, no exaggeration. As edited, as with so much else, the movie can’t sit still yet it never gets going. “Ludicrous tricks,” the botanist calls the boat captain’s chicanery at one point. “They’re getting really tedious.”

 

And there’s your review.

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‘JUNGLE CRUISE’

1.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence)

Running time: 2:07

Where to watch: In theaters and available on Disney+ Premier Access Friday

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