21 May 2008
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
A lot can happen in a couple decades. Steven Spielberg won a pair of Oscars. George Lucas made his much-maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy. Harrison Ford has reached retirement age for most Americans. Now, the director, executive producer and star, respectively, have reunited for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie that is far from their best work but good, brainless fun nonetheless.
From the moment we see Ford in silhouette as he places that signature fedora atop his head and John Williams teases us with his indelible theme (the one you’re probably hearing in your head or humming aloud as you read this), nothing else matters.
At 65, he’s seven years older than Sean Connery was when he played Indy’s father in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But it is of little consequence. He's still spry enough to be believable as an action hero and his sardonic wit remains intact. Ford simply is Indiana Jones, and as this movie proves, he always will be.
The advanced age works for the character. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. always has been one of the most human of action heroes. He is repeatedly beaten up, shot and taken prisoner. He doesn’t always get what he’s after on the first try. He gets scared (“Snakes ... Why did it have to be snakes?”). He rarely has a plan. “I’m making this up as I go,” he admits in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Old age is just another obstacle he must overcome, the same as everyone else.
Before going any further, I should note that I have been an Indiana Jones fan for as long as I can remember being a fan of anything. One of my earliest memories is of seeing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and being terrified when it appeared that the evil Mola Ram had brainwashed Indy and brought him over to his side. (Odd that it wasn’t Mola Ram ripping the hearts out of innocents' chests that spooked me so. Does that say something about me?)
When you’re young and losing yourself in adventures such as these, you aren’t exactly taking an objective view. You’re too busy longing for a bullwhip of your own and wondering which mystical treasure you're going to dig up in the desert. With these movies, you never completely lose that feeling. Consequently, I’ve never been able to watch them with a critical eye, and that makes reviewing Crystal Skull a tricky proposition. I enjoyed it—for Ford’s performance more than anything else—while recognizing it is virtually impossible for it to create the kind of excitement in me that the earlier films did.
The movie begins 19 years after The Last Crusade. It’s 1957. The Nazis are long gone, replaced by the Red Menace and the Cold War. Indy is a decorated World War II veteran and still a part-time college professor of archaeology.
Indy and his buddy Mac (Ray Winstone) have been kidnapped by Soviet soldiers, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), and brought to a familiar warehouse, which happens to be part of Nevada’s infamous Area 51, to help them find one of the mythical crystal skulls. According to the legend, someone stole the Crystal Skull of Akator from the City of Gold, which is guarded by the living dead in the Amazon. Whoever returns the skull to the city’s temple gains control of the skull’s powers.
A young man called Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who clearly watched Marlon Brando in The Wild One a few too many times, tracks Indy down and tells him a mutual friend, Professor Oxley (John Hurt) has gone mad during his own search for the skull.
It's a MacGuffin, really—nothing more than an excuse for Indy to butt heads with the Soviets and send them all down to the jungles of South America for one elaborate action set piece after another. The magic comes and goes; the early motorcycle chase scene gives the movie its most thrilling moments, while another chase in the jungle drags and, at times, borders on the kind of slapstick that marred much of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
In tone, Crystal Skull most closely resembles The Last Crusade, with the chemistry and banter between Ford and LaBeouf mirroring that of Ford and Connery. LaBeouf gets the meatiest role in a supporting cast that also includes Karen Allen as Indy’s Raiders love, Marion, and Jim Broadbent as Indy's new college dean.
I suspect Crystal Skull will disappoint some longtime fans. We’ll probably hear griping about the plot’s science fiction leanings (even though it’s no more outlandish than the Ark of the Covenant melting Nazis’ faces, almost anything in The Temple of Doom or the everlasting life promised by the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade). No movie can live up to the hopes and expectations that have been building for 19 years. Throw those away and have fun.
(Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images. 124 minutes.)