Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt, and Dwayne Johnson in "Jungle Cruise".

An Action-Adventure Classic — “Jungle Cruise”

My new favorite action hero is The Woman in Pants. Everywhere Emily Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton goes in 1916, friends and enemies alike remark that she’s drawing attention to herself by daring to wear trousers instead of a dress. It’s one of a dozen running gags that fuel “Jungle Cruise”, which also happens to be one of the best adventure movies of the last 10 years.

Houghton journeys to the Amazon during World War I with her brother in tow. They’re searching for a flower that could revolutionize medicine. There she find’s Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff. More than their boat captain, he’s a quick-witted con man whose motives are impossible to pin down. German soldiers want the flower for themselves, raising undead conquistadors in a tricky alliance. Soon, everyone is chasing The Woman in Pants down the winding rivers of the Amazon.

Before the superhero boom, action-adventures like “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” dominated the event movie landscape. “Jungle Cruise” absolutely belongs in that conversation, though it leans more heavily on its leads to carry it than those films did.

You might make the mistake of thinking this is a Dwayne Johnson movie, but the ubiquitous actor plays the 1b character here. No, this is an Emily Blunt action-adventure, and it frees up both actors to play to their strengths.

Blunt carries movies, period. She’s usually both the best dramatic and comic actor in her films. She has that special knack for looking the exact same in every movie yet being unrecognizable between roles. I refuse to believe this is the same actress who led “Sicario”. It’s just not possible, but in film after film she’s simply expanded her range with ease.

The extent to which Blunt claims her spot as one of our greatest action heroes here can’t be overstated. If you look at “The Mummy” as a prototypical action-adventure blueprint, Blunt is playing Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz at the same time. That she pulls it off so smoothly frees everyone else up to be John Hannah.

Don’t get me wrong, Dwayne Johnson can be a lead, and he gets fight scenes against a jaguar, undead conquistadors, evil Germans, the whole action-adventure bingo card. Yet he’s primarily here to be the comedic change-of-pace and potential romantic interest. Johnson plays off Blunt beautifully, and they put on a clinic when it comes to charm and timing.

It’s great to see Johnson in a role that stretches his comedy muscles more than his action ones. Frank runs cons on the wide-eyed European tourists who pour into the Amazon, faking adventurous boat rides and squeezing every cent out of his passengers. While Frank doesn’t know when to stop running cons on someone like the smart and self-aware Lily, he’s also empathetic. He’s constantly deceitful, but also kind in a way that suggests there’s more to be understood before judging him. That’s dangerous territory, but it’s conveyed with reason here.

Jack Whitehall plays Lily’s brother MacGregor. He’s superb, and as close to the archetype of John Hannah in “The Mummy” as anyone’s going to get. Jesse Plemons is Joachim, the Germany prince who’s stalking them. His comedy is much broader, and I’m still undecided how much it works.

“Jungle Cruise” is based on a Disney theme park ride, just as “Pirates of the Caribbean” was. It similarly utilizes elements of the ride in meta comedy moments, especially early as part of Frank’s cons. The movie smartly ditches the “savage natives” trope that Disney loved back then, and inverts and comments on it a few times.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie taking place in the Amazon with barely any Latine or indigenous characters in it. Mexican legend Veronica Falcon plays an indigenous leader. The lead undead conquistador (a Spanish character) is the underrated Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez (my choice to play Geralt in “The Witcher” before Henry Cavill was cast). There are a lot of Latine actors filling out the backgrounds of settlements, but they’re never front and center. There’s certainly a missed opportunity here.

I went and saw this at the drive-in. I’m vaccinated against COVID-19, but with the Delta variant spreading, I still don’t want to encourage people (including myself) to go to theaters. A drive-in allowed me to stay in my car, outside, distanced from everyone else. I mention this to encourage it as an alternative to theaters until we better know how the Delta variant’s spread will look.

I also mention it – on a less important note – to talk about CGI. The drive-in I went to is a temporary installation put together during COVID. The picture quality is fine, but just a bit dark. I’ve heard some people have an issue with the CGI. I didn’t and I thought it was creative – especially with how the undead creatures are choreographed in action scenes. That said, a hint of light or darkness in the picture can do a lot for how CGI translates. I might have liked it more because I was seeing it slightly darker than I would have on my TV at home. That can make the eye fuse the CGI to its surroundings better, whereas a lighter picture highlights color choices and tone differences that can introduce uncanny valley qualities. I may have come away liking the CGI better than most because of that.

For me, “Jungle Cruise” is in the same conversation as classic action-adventures “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (and I’d argue “John Carter”). I think I was locked in when, after the joke was strung across the movie, one undead conquistador commands another to “follow the woman in pants”. There’s a particular glee when a movie decides it’s going to live or die on a joke it thinks is really funny, and “Jungle Cruise” constantly decides to do this. It does help the movie feel more personal.

I did say at the start that it leans more heavily on its leads, though. “The Mummy” and “Pirates” were movies with tight foundations and successful storytelling that were then elevated into rare territory by fantastic ensemble casts. “Jungle Cruise” is successful because of Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall, which means it’s already leaning on them quite heavily by the time it needs them to elevate the film as well.

In its bones, I don’t think it’s as well-structured or ambitious as “The Mummy” or “Pirates”. It still gets to that elevated territory, but by repeating the same strengths. Those other films kept finding new strengths, which made them feel more universal and added to tension in their final acts. “Jungle Cruise” doesn’t have those additional strengths to find – but if you’re going to get trapped in that position, it turns out the best initial strengths to keep repeating are Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall.

You can watch “Jungle Cruise” on Disney+.

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