The Lost City started out as the brainchild of Seth Gordon, who might’ve proceeded to write and direct the film himself if he wasn’t still in Movie Jail for Baywatch (2017). Instead, the film was written by Oren Uziel (at least partly responsible for the screenplays of The Cloverfield Paradox, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, and the 2011 reboot of Mortal Kombat), alongside Dana Fox (most recently among those who can be blamed for the screenplays to Isn’t It Romantic and Cruella).
As if that wasn’t enough, we’ve also got Aaron and Adam Nee, both credited as co-writers and directors. What else have the Nee Brothers done? Not much. Aside from a handful of short films, their only other feature credit is Band of Robbers, a Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn crime thriller riff that nobody saw. Though it looks like they’re the latest ones tasked with shepherding the Masters of the Universe film that everybody’s been trying to make for the past twenty years, so they’ve got that going for them.
(Side note: Netflix is reportedly quite bullish on the IP, ever since that “Masters of the Universe: Revelations” animated continuation worked out so well. They bought the live-action project from Sony, so maybe it’ll actually happen this time, who knows?)
In front of the camera, we’ve got Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum — both seasoned romantic comedy veterans — while Daniel Radcliffe is on hand to try a new villainous persona. Moral of the story: It doesn’t matter how charismatic your lead performers are, that’ll only get you so far when the writing/directing is shit.
Loretta Sage (Sandra Bullock) and her late husband were legitimate archaeologists, well-educated in languages and cultures throughout history and all over the globe. Trouble is, they couldn’t find a way for that to pay the bills. So Loretta took her knowledge of faraway exotic locales, took a few minor artistic liberties by way of bodice-ripping, and came to worldwide fame and fortune as a romance novelist.
That said, it appears that significant credit for Loretta’s success must be given to Alan (Channing Tatum), the cover model who’s appeared on pretty much all of Loretta’s book covers. Where the fans are concerned, Alan pretty much is the leading man of Loretta’s books. Except that he’s a preening moron who doesn’t know how to do much of anything except look good for the audience.
Anyway, Loretta’s been going through a rough patch ever since her husband died. She doesn’t really know what she wants, except to be left alone in her house without the pressures of wasting her archaeological bona fides on writing the same mindless pablum over and over. Enter Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), an eccentric billionaire who recently lost the family media empire to his younger brother (whom we never meet).
Obsessed with the notion of getting something that nobody could ever buy, Fairfax has devoted considerable time and money toward locating the legendary “Crown of Fire”, the great treasure of a long-forgotten monarch. By a stroke of luck, Fairfax was able to locate the lost city where the crown was supposedly located, and he bought the whole freaking island where the city was found. Trouble is, Fairfax doesn’t know the exact spot in the city or on the island where the dead monarch and the Crown of Fire were buried. Even worse, this island is sitting directly atop an active volcano that’s threatening to erupt at any moment.
Luckily for Fairfax, this exact same lost city and the Crown of Fire were both key inspirations for Loretta’s latest book. In fact, the novel demonstrates Loretta’s unique aptitude for translating the dead language of this lost culture. Thus Loretta is shanghaied into Fairfax’s quest to locate the crown before the whole island is buried in a fresh layer of lava. Alan gets wind of all this (it’s a long story) and goes on an ill-conceived mission to rescue her, and we’re off to the races.
As you might have noticed, we’ve got some pretty huge fucking problems right off the bat.
Let’s start with the villain. If you’ve been following Daniel Radcliffe’s career of late, you might’ve noticed that he’s been making some pretty bold moves over the past few years, taking roles that are varying degrees of unhinged. (see: Swiss Army Man, Guns Akimbo, the upcoming Weird Al biopic, etc.) It turns out that this kind of madcap energy works surprisingly well for playing a deranged billionaire, and Radcliffe does a sterling job playing an egomaniacal sociopath desperately trying to drown his unresolved daddy issues in money.
(Side note: Come to think of it, isn’t that pretty much exactly what Radcliffe already did in Now You See Me 2? I still haven’t seen that movie — if anyone out there did, I hope you’ll leave a comment.)
Fairfax is undeniably an asshole. But the big problem here is that he’s not wrong.
Think about it — what happens if Fairfax succeeds? He retrieves a priceless historical artifact from a culture previously thought to be lost, and he gets it back to the world at large before the entire city is destroyed by a volcano. How is that a bad thing? It’s not like the crown is reputed to have any kind of magical powers, and it’s not like anyone is in any kind of danger if the crown falls into his hands. Sure, Fairfax may put the crown in a vault somewhere, keeping it where nobody else can have it until he finally dies or sells it to some museum, but who cares? The simple act of preserving it is still a net positive, regardless of Fairfax’s petty motives.
Furthermore, it’s already established that Loretta knows and cares enough about this lost city and its lost treasure that she wrote an exhaustively researched romance novel all about it. And here’s an eccentric billionaire who is literally offering her a blank check to go explore the city and save some part of it from destruction. There’s no logical reason whatsoever why Loretta would turn this down.
Yet Loretta does indeed turn this down, with the stated reasons that 1) Fairfax only made this offer after kidnapping Loretta when he had NO FUCKING REASON to do so, and 2) Loretta is that darn resolved to stay at home and do nothing for the rest of her life. Never mind that she has no kids or friends or loved ones waiting for her back home, and never mind that she has no plans for what she’d rather be doing with the rest of her life, Loretta is still so deeply grieving for her late husband and so completely fed up with her life as a romance novelist that she only wants to go home and be alone.
Both reasons are the result of outrageously lazy writing. Even so, our antagonist has a stronger and more sympathetic motivation than our protagonist. That’s a dealbreaker, folks. That’s a plot fundamentally broken past the point of repair.
But let’s talk about Loretta some more. The film was clearly made and marketed as a film about two people (namely Loretta and Alan) stuck on a grand adventure that neither of them are really equipped for. The problem with this is that Loretta is, in fact, an accomplished archaeologist who knows more about this lost civilization than the rest of the cast (indeed, quite possibly the entire rest of the world) put together. On paper, our protagonist should be supremely competent. Why isn’t she?
Well, let’s start with her dress. See, Loretta was kidnapped in the process of promoting her new book. And for whatever absurd reason, her publisher (Beth, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, more on her later) decided that Loretta would be best suited to promote her romance novel in a garish purple-sequined one-piece dress that leaves no room for leg movement whatsoever. Even in the context of an interview, the dress is wildly impractical because it’s impossible to walk or stand or even sit in the stupid ugly thing. And again, she’s only wearing it — and stuck wearing it! — because it was her publisher’s stupid idea to rent out the wretched thing for this purpose.
And that’s not even getting started on Alan. The delusional, egotistical asshole who insists on putting himself into dangerous situations, even though he has no real idea what to do in a fight. The guy who actively screams at the sight of leeches when he and Loretta are supposed to be hiding from armed mercenaries. Though he does admittedly get smarter and tougher as the film continues, I can’t even begin to catalogue how many of the main characters’ problems can be traced directly back to Alan’s near-suicidal incompetence in the opening act.
So here we have a film in which Loretta is repeatedly held back — and even put in mortal danger — solely because her friends and allies are all idiots. Again, this does not make for a satisfying or sympathetic protagonist to follow.
But what of the interplay between our two romantic/comical leads? Well, it bears repeating that Bullock and Tatum each have decades of experience in the romcom game, and the both of them are going through motions we’ve seen from them a million times before. Luckily, this means that the both of them are comfortable enough that they can easily riff off each other and they share impeccable comedic timing. The bad news is that because this script is so pathetically weak, the two of them have to engage in what I like to call “machine gun humor”, improvising umpteen million takes until the funniest jokes can be stitched together in one interminably long rambling scene.
Speaking of comic relief, let’s talk about the supporting cast. We’ve got Brad Pitt on hand as a Special Forces veteran hired as an independent contractor to assist in finding and rescuing Loretta. Basically put, he’s exactly the kind of stoic, chiseled, effortlessly awesome badass that Alan only wishes he could be. Trouble is, it’s so immediately obvious that the character was destined to either die or turn evil, I couldn’t bring myself to give any fraction of a shit when the punchline finally came.
(Oh, and fuck right off with that mid-credits stinger.)
Then there’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph in the role of Beth, Loretta’s publisher and the closest thing she’s got to a best friend. This character needed her own subplot. She needed her own agenda, her own personality, her own motivation… seriously, give her any reason to be in the movie aside from bringing in the cavalry at the last minute. Without that, she’s nothing but a threadbare “sassy black best friend” trope and a tedious distraction from the main plot.
(Side note: For those who’ve seen Snatched, this is pretty much Ike Barinholtz’ subplot, but even more one-dimensional and useless. Yeah. That’s how bad this is.)
Then we have the romantic aspect. When the romance finally got going halfway through, I could see some compelling reasons for why Loretta would want to keep Alan around. He helps to remind her that however trashy her romance novels might be, they still hold value because they bring honest joy to so many millions of fans all over the world. Hell, it’s wonderful enough that the both of them get to travel all over the world and get paid for it, even if Loretta’s lost sight of how lucky that makes her. Loretta needed someone who could shake her out of her funk, get her out of the house, and give her a renewed appreciation for everything she has, and Alan provides that. Good stuff.
Trouble is, the film can’t sell it going the other way.
Remember, this is goddamn Channing Tatum. The guy could have his pick of any woman in the world, and it’s established early on that he’s got millions of fans throwing themselves at him from all directions. With all due respect to the lovely and talented Sandra Bullock, why would Alan want to be with this particular woman more than any other in the entire world? Even before they form any kind of deep emotional bond in the film’s back half, why does Alan care about Loretta so much that he would travel halfway across the world to some tiny little speck of an island in the Atlantic, risking his life to come save her? What emotional/spiritual need does Alan have that Loretta and Loretta alone could fulfill? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not seeing it.
The Lost City features three wonderful actors — Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, and Daniel Radcliffe — each of whom have done better work elsewhere in this lane and all of whom deserve a far better movie. Between the one-sided romance, the scattershot comedy, the asinine plot, and the all-around lazy writing, the script is so deeply broken that the whole film was rendered unsalvageable from the start of the second act. Yet for all of that, the film makes a solid enough case for why we need brainless bubblegum entertainment, so at least it earns the right to exist.
It’s fun in places, but this cast with this premise should have — and easily could have — been far better than what we got. Sorry, but there’s no way I can recommend this.