I’ve seen some strange things at the movies this summer — a female-only assassin school in space, an electromagnetic truck that sucks in the metal around it as it barrels through London — but nothing quite as unexpected as what I saw in Disney’s Jungle Cruise. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first. So I cleaned my glasses. I rubbed my eyes. Could it be that . . . Dwayne Johnson is trying to act?
It’s 1916, you see, and even though his body type has not even been invented yet, there is Dwayne Johnson as Frank, the pilot of a little river boat he steers up the Amazon in Brazil for the purpose of cheating tourists out of their money. Mysterious and cynical and wry, he wears a little sailing cap with a rakish tilt just like Bogart’s in The African Queen. He’s a scallywag and a scamp, a rapscallion and a rogue. When a hyper-confident, super-knowledgeable, butt-kickingly badass lady scientist from London, Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), who has brought along her nervous and useless little brother (Jack Whitehall) for no apparent reason, hires him for an Amazon excursion, he calls her “Pants” because that’s how she dresses and that’s the screenplay’s idea of a witty putdown.
Lily has an arrowhead that, according to legend, is the key to the secrets of a magical tree whose petals — “the tears of the moon” — will, according to legend, cure any ailment. (For a scientist, Lily has an awful lot of faith in legends.) Because there’s a war on with Germany, she’s being pursued by the Colonel Klink of U-Boat commanders, played with an unmade bed of floppy blond hair and a comic-opera accent by Jesse Plemons. I didn’t catch this character’s name, but the way he talks I’m sure it was something like Jerry-Fritz HunBoche. Early in the movie, the U-Boat fires the world’s slowest-moving torpedo at the chugging riverboat from a distance of no more than ten yards, and misses. A tip for all you villainous U-boat officers trying to steal arrowheads that will empower you to win your war: Fire the weapon when you’re underwater; don’t come to the surface and let your prey see you while you mess around. That’s kind of what the U in U-Boat is for.
Dr. Lily Houghton, as we learn in the opening minutes when she demonstrates a combination of acrobatics, weapons expertise, and genius-level sleuthing (yet it’s mostly luck that helps her find the arrowhead because that’s how idiotic the script is), marks the latest iteration of the you-go-girl cinema goddess who is supposed to personify groovy feminist swagger but is so invincible that she’s a hopeless bore. Her only flaw, we keep being told, is that she can’t swim. Late in the movie, though, when she gets thrown in the water, it turns out she’s absolutely fine at swimming, which she learns in a few seconds. All five screenwriters and the director (a mediocrity named Jaume Collet-Serra, whose credits include The Shallows, The Commuter, and the remake of House of Wax) are men, and you can tell every one of them went to work each day thinking, “Please, please, please, let no one call me a misogynist on Twitter.” Adventure movies, these days, are written by the most gelatinous of cowards. Katharine Hepburn (middle name Houghton: get it?) was pretty annoying with the shrieking and the complaining in The African Queen, perhaps the capstone of her annoying career, but at least she gave off a sense that she was in danger.
Neither the silliness of the dummkopf German villain in his Sergeant Pepper costume nor the Mary Sue problem is the biggest flaw in this rotten tuna of a story. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the basic idea of pumping up a notoriously dull Disney ride into a sort of Pirates of the Lost Ark, complete with cursed conquistadors and magical river dolphins, amulets and maps and pursuing Germans. Nor is the movie ruined by the presence of a digital jaguar that is so fake-looking I kept looking for the price tag attached to his ear.
No, the chief problem here is the dad-joke Bogart driving the boat, the guy who says things like, “There’s two birds and they’re toucans, so only toucan play.” Actually, that’s not even a joke.
An hour and a half into this way-too-long, 127-minute movie, I began to think: Hang on, is there supposed to be some kind of romantic spark between the two leads? Am I meant to have some kind of Sam-and-Diane feeling that these two bickering opposites are secretly longing to take each other below decks and rock the boat till whitecaps appear? Johnson’s brand is “genial ox who can fix and/or kill things” not “enigmatic wise guy bantering flirtatiously.” He is as far from Bogart as New Zealand is from New Jersey. Whenever a lady is around, he seems like her friendly, possibly overprotective big brother, not a potential love interest. He has all the sensuousness of lox. What is he doing in this would-be adventure romcom anyway? Putting him in this role makes about as much sense as putting Pee-Wee Herman in a weight-lifting contest. Johnson is very, very good at what he does. But for the sake of all of us Rock fans, please: Don’t ask the man to act.