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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/22/08 00:00:00

"Whip it good!"
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s been twenty-seven years since we last saw Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood together. Since then, they’ve longed for each other as much as we’ve longed for them. Their finest romantic moment comes - where else? - in the middle of a high speed chase through the jungles of South America. Indy admits that yes, there have been other women since Marion exited his life, and without missing a beat, he adds that all of them shared one simple flaw: “They weren’t you.”

Such a moment reminds us that there’s nothing else like the Indiana Jones movies. The franchise is an A list tribute to pulpy B pictures, and in the long-awaited return, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” we see the formula back in full force. The action is breathless, popcorn-munching adventure flick perfection. But these days, anybody can do action; it’s the between-the-chases bits that elevate “Crystal Skull” to spectacular storytelling. The screenplay (by David Koepp, from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) has a long memory, noting not only that we fell in love with Indy and Marion so long ago, but why. And just as Willie Scott and Elsa Schneider weren’t Marion Ravenwood, all those action movies to come our way in the nineteen years since the sun set on “The Last Crusade” just weren’t Indiana Jones.

“Crystal Skull” (the full title is clunky yet brilliantly Saturday matinee-esque) opens in 1957. All that time George Lucas and Steven Spielberg spent waiting for the right story to bring back the fedora (and yup, this is the right story) is gone with the wind, although exposition fills in the blanks: Indy (Harrison Ford, and he’s still got it) spent the war years fighting those damn Nazis as Colonel Jones of the OSS, then spent the next decade taking down the Commies as a government operative alongside MI6 officer George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone). He still teaches archeology to swooning college kids, of course.

The story opens smack dab in the middle of the atomic age. Drag racing teens race through the Nevada desert, breezing past the Atomic Café. Elvis blares on the radio. And Indy and Mac have been nabbed by a gang of dirty Reds, led by the rapier-wielding villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett at her sultriest). It turns out the Russkies need Indy’s help locating a mysterious metal box.

To reveal much else would be a disservice, although it’s safe to reveal that Indy’s adventures ultimately lead him on the quest for a missing professor, a lost city of gold, and a crystal skull reported to have psychic powers. The rest is as wildly over-the-top in its supernatural silliness as we’d expect from the franchise, as “Crystal Skull” takes the fantasy elements of the first three films and updates them with the mythologies of the 1950s. (To set the stage, one shot - one of the most hauntingly gorgeous images of the series - features Indy silhouetted against a nuclear mushroom cloud. Duck and cover, Doctor Jones!)

It’s clear that Lucas and Spielberg are relishing the chance to bring their hero into the decade of their youth. One motorcycle chase - which kicks off with greasers, lettermen, soda shops, and Bill Haley on the jukebox - feels inspired by “American Graffiti,” while such elements as sour-faced FBI men and references to Roswell come straight out of the gritty genre comics of the era.

And then there’s Mutt Williams. We first see this new sidekick roll into frame in a shot straight out of “The Wild One,” with Shia LaBeouf’s character sporting the same tilted hat and leather jacket. Mutt’s a greaser who barges into Indy’s life in need of help, tagging along for the wild ride to follow. With a keen eye, brash tempter, and plenty of smarts hidden underneath a rugged exterior, Mutt comes off as something of a junior Indy, reworked for the Eisenhower years. But lest you think the character was invented to handle the action while Harrison Ford cools his aging heels on the sidelines, note that Mutt’s often the one on the side, with Indy - a grayer, craggier, wiser Indy - is just as quick with the whip as ever.

(Side thought: In one scene, we catch a glimpse of a snapshot of a younger Mutt. In this photo, the kid is clean cut and bookish; more than just a throwaway gag, it’s one of countless details that reveal a movie that’s well made down to the corners of the frame.)

The entire movie is so brisk with the action, so awash in those gorgeous, familiar golden tones (Janusz Kaminski takes over cinematography duties from series veteran Douglas Slocombe), so tightly crafted, so sharply acted (John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijkine, and the incomparable Karen Allen - still crushworthy after all this time - round out the cast), so quick-witted and big-scale, just so darn right that you’d never guess the franchise has been gone all this time. Spielberg, whose movies have been darker, more contemplative, more “grown-up” lately (even his lighter fare came with heavy subtext), shows no problem in switching gears. An older Spielberg may mean a more world-weary Indy, but it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to formulate knock-out visual thrills. Nobody makes pure popcorn cinema like Steven Spielberg, and his work in “Crystal Skull” is as solid as anything he’s ever made.

And “Crystal Skull” lays down plenty of track for the director to play. Koepp’s screenplay is crammed with every imaginable pulp adventure scenario, from a swordfight atop a car chase to a full-on Tarzan homage to quicksand and deadly natives and deadlier jungle creatures. There’s not a moment wasted in this movie, which barrels ahead with furious gusto, winking all the way. Every inch of it is worthy of the Indiana Jones brand.

Yes, boys and girls, buy your popcorn and prop up your feet. Doctor Jones is back, and he’s ready to prove that there’s just nobody like him.

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