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There should be more movies like The Lost City, even if it isn’t perfect

The action rom-com turns Channing Tatum into the damsel in distress.

Sandra Bullock in a sparkly outfit with Channing Tatum in khakis and a t-shirt beside a tropical waterfall in the movie “The Lost City.”
Sandra Bullock, left, and Channing Tatum in The Lost City.
Kimberley French
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

After I walked out of a screening of The Lost City, the thought that I kept coming back to was that the movie’s leads — Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum — are two of the biggest names in Hollywood who haven’t been in a Marvel movie. I suppose that’s a testament to the superhero genre’s chokehold on the movie-making business. But it also says a lot about Bullock’s and Tatum’s star power (Tatum was involved with a movie about the X-Man known as Gambit, but that ultimately fizzled out) and, reflexively, how rare it is that a movie like The Lost City exists.

Directed by Aaron and Adam Nee, who both co-wrote the movie with Oren Uziel and Dana Fox, based on a story by Seth Gordon, The Lost City is an action-adventure rom-com that isn’t based on already existing IP (unless you count the concept of the model Fabio). The effects and action sequences of said adventure aren’t really the draw here, though — the stars are. The Nees and their movie are more concerned with showcasing Bullock and Tatum’s chemistry, and inverting at least one of the genre’s tropes.

Despite his intimidating physique, Tatum spends a lot of the movie writhing around in a wet t-shirt and inflicting low-damage slaps to henchmen. Bullock is stern and extraordinarily intelligent, playing an academic-cum-romance novelist who manages to summon Indiana Jones energy in a purple sequined jumpsuit.

Bullock is his hero, Tatum is the damsel in distress.

That inversion isn’t particularly clever (the movie’s stars blurt out the phrase “damsel in distress” at one point), and doesn’t feel like a breakthrough, as we’ve seen Bullock and Tatum play versions of their characters before — Bullock has already played a hero in waiting in Miss Congeniality and Tatum a sensitive galoot in the 21 Jump Street franchise. There’s an obviousness to their dynamic. Yet, thanks to its stars, there are still moments of genuine laughter and buoyancy in The Lost City that made me glad it exists — enough to convince me that Bullock and Tatum should be in more mid-budget rom-coms, and that there need to be more, not fewer, movies like it.

The Lost City is, at its heart, a warning to think twice before romantically pursuing a writer. Loretta Sage (Bullock) is a successful romance novelist who has grown to resent everything around her. She hates her devout fans that buy her books and allow her to live a plush life of white wine on ice and bathtub soaking. She hates doing publicity for her new book, The Lost City of D, even though said publicity gets said fans to buy said book. She hates her devoted publisher and friend Beth (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) because she is making her do a promotional tour, and she hates her cover model and promo tour co-headliner, Alan (Tatum), for not understanding his role in the writing process (nonexistent).

Part of Loretta’s sourness is due to the death of her husband, an adventuring archaeologist who was on the verge of uncovering the ancient civilization and city on which her book is based. We get about 10 minutes setting up Loretta’s loss — looking longingly at old photos of her and her husband in archaeologist garb but also see her groaning, scolding, and rolling her eyes at the various people trying to make her life easier, to establish that perhaps she always had grumpy vibes about her and that her husband’s death pushed her into this scornful place.

Loretta’s countenance is so glum that when she’s kidnapped, you even feel just the tiniest bit sorry for her captors.

Her kidnapper is a wee media scion named Abigail Fairfax (Daniel Radcliffe), who needs her to translate the dead language referenced in her book, bringing him to the lost city and the priceless headdress buried in a hidden tomb. If there were a more pleasant or reputable person capable of translating the document he needs Loretta to look at, Fairfax assures both her and the audience that he would have pursued other, less zany options.

Despite Sage’s curmudgeonly attitude, Beth, Alan, and Beth’s assistant Allison (human high point Patti Harrison) decide they must extract her. While Beth and Allison pursue more tried and true methods, i.e. contacting the authorities, Alan reaches out to a special-ops expert/ personal trainer (Brad Pitt, in an extended cameo) he met at a meditation boot camp and gets to Loretta first.

Alan’s clumsy rescue attempt introduces The Lost City’s favorite conceit: making Loretta the action hero and turning Alan into the action hero’s girlfriend.

Three actors go toward the camera to escape the explosion in the background. One pushes another in a wheelbarrow while the third runs.
An explosion, and from left: Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, and Channing Tatum in The Lost City.
Kimberley French

In a split-second decision, Loretta steals Fairfax’s ancient parchment for herself, stuffs it in the cleavage of her fuschia jumpsuit, and then spends the rest of the movie piecing together where it leads. She’s resourceful, turning the aforementioned jumpsuit into a henchmen-killing booby trap. She uses her experience in the field as an adventurer and archaeologist to navigate the jungles and caves. At one point, she and Alan could seemingly go home (and ostensibly end the movie) but Loretta’s ambition leads them back into the wilderness and into danger. She doesn’t exactly ask Alan his opinion on what to do next.

Meanwhile, Alan’s sole focus is on Loretta. He wants to protect her but isn’t quite good at it. He doesn’t tell her when she makes him feel small. He affirms her intelligence, with no expectation of it in return. At one point in the movie, Alan tells Loretta that he understands why she feels the corny romance novels she writes are beneath her. He, too, cringed at being on their covers — until he met her fans. Anything that can bring that kind of joy is nothing to be embarrassed about, he tells her.

Other action hero girlfriend qualities: Alan is much younger than Loretta, Alan is bad at driving, Alan is equally bad at swimming, Alan is allergic to water, Alan is an optimist. Alan is not good at punching and can only slap, and Alan also has the movie’s only nude-ish scene.

Tatum has the muscular, chiseled, rugged (but soft in the lips and eyes) look phenotypical for a Marvel superhero, but it’s impossible to say he’s playing against type. Tatum has played this self-aware, soft himbo role before in movies (and mostly sequels) like 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street, and given us flashes in Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL, and Kingsman: a Golden Circle. There is no man in Hollywood as good-looking as Tatum who’s better at playing a sensitive himbo, and in this case the romantic accessory to Bullock’s Loretta Sage.

Pairing Tatum alongside Bullock, who played Annie Porter in Speed, one of the most famed action hero girlfriends in the action hero girlfriend pantheon, is a meta role reversal that the movie loves and leans into. The conceit operates on knowing who these actors are and who they’ve played, and picking up on winks to their previous work, as well as tropes of action-adventure movies of the past.

The dynamic and nostalgia are effective, but I do wish The Lost City would give us a bit more to think about.

Channing Tatum is so good at swerving away from being the sexy, dashing Channing Tatum that he’s supposed to be, that the jolt of surprise isn’t there. Sweet, kinda wimpy Channing Tatum has become the silver screen’s go-to Channing Tatum. Similarly, Bullock, a human charm offensive if there was ever one, is giving us a variant of her past performances as gruff agent Gracie Hart from Miss Congeniality and rigid agent Sarah Ashburn from The Heat. Like Tatum, the character is right in Bullock’s wheelhouse, but the material here isn’t really pushing her or her co-star to any fresh places.

That said, while The Lost City is by no means perfect, I hope it does well. It’s the right movie for a plane ride, or something I’d put on if I’m not in the mood for Spy, the best action rom-com of all time. But because of the way studios monitor box office hauls, The Lost City and its reported budget of around $70 million represents a trial balloon of sorts. Should it fail to hit numbers executives want, those executives will see it as more confirmation that mid-budget rom-coms and their ilk are not worth investing in the way superhero movies, reboots, and sequels of established hits are.

I hate that!

Pinning all the hopes and dreams of the romantic comedy genre and mid-budget movies generally (even other unsung genres, say, erotic thrillers) onto Tatum’s broad shoulders and Bullock’s sequined jumpsuit is unfair. Tatum’s lats and Bullock’s superpower to defy the rules of human aging should be able to be judged on their own terms. Both go above and beyond what’s necessary. Hopefully The Lost City does well enough to keep the money-driven, movie-making deciders at bay so that we can see more movies like it — or maybe a sequel that’s even better.

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