Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/19/08 12:44:14

"When The Whip Comes Down"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” finds everyone’s favorite swashbuckling archaeologist, the hero of the landmark 1981 smash “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” 1984’s”Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” returning to the big screen for a brand-new tale of derring-do for the first time in 19 years and in doing so, he finds himself battling adversaries far more treacherous and worrisome than any of the Nazi monkeys, Thuggee cultists, snakes, rats, ginormous boulders or Kate Capshaws that he dealt with in his previous adventures. For starters, there is the inescapable fact that he has been gone for so long that kids who were conceived by their parents after catching the last film are now graduating from high school and, unlike the “Star Wars” movies, the series has never had the kind of cultural cachet that would allow it to overcome such a time gap. (While “Raiders” was a legitimate phenomenon whose breakneck pace helped influence virtually every adventure film to emerge in its wake, neither of the follow-up had the same kind of impact and weren’t even the most important or successful films of their respective summer seasons--”Ghostbusters” seized the zeitgeist in 1984 and the summer of 1989 was all about “Batman.”) Then there is the inescapable fact that the career arcs of the three principal driving forces behind the film--director Steven Spielberg, producer George Luca and star Harrison Ford--could kindly be described as “uneven” at best; Ford has been coasting through junk like “Six Days, Seven Nights,” “Hollywood Homicide” and “Firewall” while spitting the bit on more ambitious projects like “Traffic,” Lucas revived his “Star Wars” franchise with results that even the hard-core fanatics found difficult to justify and while Spielberg’s output in the last decade or so has been refreshingly diverse for a filmmaker of his success and stature, the resulting films (with the exceptions of the sorely underrated “A.I.” and the first two-thirds of “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds”) have ranged in quality from the middling likes of the terminally overscaled “The Terminal” to the downright embarrassments of “Amistad” and the final scenes of “Munich.”

The biggest obstacle, however, is the inescapable fact that after “Raiders of the Lost Ark,: which I would still place as one of my top five or six Spielberg movies (after “Jaws,” “Duel,” “1941,” “A.I.” and maybe “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the follow-up adventures of Dr. Jones have never quite lived up to the promise of that first film. “Temple of Doom” was a joyless, racist and sexist mess that had a great opening set piece (a nightclub fracas that, with the exception of the jitterbug contest from “1941,” may be the greatest bit of extended physical comedy that he has ever staged) and then quickly devolved into an exhausting and grotesquely mean-spirited mess that left a bad taste in the mouth that not even the admittedly cool mine car chase could overcome. “The Last Crusade,” by comparison, was a far sunnier experience and it did include two strokes of genius--a prologue featuring the adventures of the young Indiana Jones (the late River Phoenix) that explained how he got his hat, whip and fear of snakes and the brilliant idea of casting Sean Connery as Jones’ doddering dad--that almost, but not quite, managed to distract you from the inescapable fact that the storyline was pretty forgettable. (Seriously, outside of the fact that everyone is looking for the Holy Grail, what do you actually remember about the plot details?) This was followed by a television series, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” that promised thrills and derring-do on a weekly basis but provided only a really expensive and fairly humorless live-action version of the old Peabody and Sherman cartoons that saw younger incarnations of our hero interacting with famous historical characters and learning valuable history lessons, much to the dismay of audiences who wanted to see more of Indy evading melting Nazis and less of him flirting with Edith Wharton. None of these subsequent efforts, whatever their other virtues, were able to recapture the perfect mixture of action, excitement, romance, humor, ickiness and panache of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and as various scripts for a fourth film found themselves being rejected one after the other, it began to seem as if the formula that hooked viewers in 1981 might never be repeated.

Set in 1957, the film opens with Indiana Jones and trustworthy British sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) being deposited at a top-secret U.S. military base (to reveal the location would probably constitute a big, fat spoiler) at the behest of ultra-vicious Commie cutie Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who wants him to locate a mysterious crate being held in an enormous warehouse that contains some very familiar treasures. He finds the highly magnetized crate and while he is able to escape certain death in the chaos that inevitably ensues (which involves betrayal, high-speed chases and arguably the funniest punch line involving a nuclear bomb seen on the big screen since “True Lies”), he is unable to prevent Spalko and her men from getting away with the prize. To make matters worse, the incident has made Indy, despite his sterling war record, into a target of an increasingly paranoid commie-obsessed government and their suspicions force him out of his teaching job.

While leaving town, he runs into Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a cycle-riding greaser-in-training bearing news and a proposition. It seems that an old associate of Indy’s, Professor Oxley (John Hurt) has gotten himself into serious trouble while searching for the fabled Crystal Skull of Akator, an ancient relic said to be bestow whomever possesses it with unimaginable power. Not only that, Mutt’s mother has also been kidnapped by the same people who have taken Oxley. Of course, there is only one man who can possibly track down and find both the skull and both Oxley and Mutt’s mom and lucky for them, he has just been forced into an indefinite sabbatical. After eluding another group of pursuers, Indy and Mutt track the skull to the jungles of Peru and while they are on the hunt, they discover that they aren’t the only ones in search of the piece--Spalko also wants it in order to help create a psychic warfare weapon that will give the Russians the advantage in the Cold War. Indy also makes another discovery that is even more shocking--Mutt’s mother is none other than the one-time love of his life, the ever-feisty Marion Ravenswood (Karen Allen), and she is even more irked with him now than she was when he dropped into her bar in Nepal all those years ago, though not without good reason.

Screenwriters (Jeff Nathanson, Frank Darabont and, allegedly, M Night Shyamalan among them) have been trying to crack the nut for a new Indiana Jones film for years now and, perhaps inevitably, the screenplay that has emerged from those attempts, credited to David Koepp, is almost inevitably somewhat uneven in nature. On the one hand, it does do a pretty good job of balancing things so that the film can play equally well for longtime fans of the series and newcomers alike. The fans will dig the various in-jokes and references to the earlier films--Indy’s well-documented fear of snakes is once again exploited to good comedic effect and there are nice nods to beloved members of the series who have either passed away (Denholm Elliott, whose Marcus Brody even gets to deliver some posthumous aid in helping Indy and Mutt escape from another tight spot) or retired (Sean Connery). At the same time, the film doesn’t get so wrapped up in the minutiae of its mythology that those who have never seen an Indiana Jones film before (as odd as that may seem to those of a certain age, such people do exist) will find themselves completely at sea. In one of the most interesting moves, “Crystal Skull” largely eschews the serial-like narrative structure of the earlier films in order to take a more straightforward approach that better exemplifies the breathless anti-Communist pulp fiction that flourished during the time it takes place in the films of directors like Sam Fuller. This is a neat gambit because without completely overhauling the material in potentially alien ways, it offers just enough of a change-up right from the start (the opening action set piece now comes across as a integral part of the story instead of as the climax of a previous chapter) to put fans and newbies on equal footing as the story progresses.

On the other hand, there are aspects to the screenplay that just don’t work that well. For starters, we never really get a clear idea for the most part as to the Crystal Skull or the powers that it contains. Yes, I know that it is just another example of what Alfred Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin”--a narrative device that doesn’t really do anything by itself but which drives the story and motivates the characters to do what they do--but this prize never seems quite as compelling or fully drawn as the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail from the earlier films. The addition of Shia LaBeouf to the proceedings as a younger foil for Harrison Ford, not to mention a way of luring in younger viewers to the series, may make sense from a commercial standpoint but doesn’t really add a lot to the proceedings. While he isn’t as annoying as the pseudo-adorable Short Round from “Temple of Doom,” he is never particularly convincing as either a potential action hero (which is important as this film seems to be grooming him for a possible spin-off series) or as a troubled 50’s punk--he comes across more like someone doing a spoof of Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” for a school pageant. More distressingly, and this will probably not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen any of his movies in the last few years, Spielberg once again proves that while he has many unique gifts as a filmmaker, coming up with a satisfying ending is not one of them--having maintained a decent balance between the realistic and the preposterous for most of its running time, the story descends into outright fantasy silliness in the final reels, its climax is mostly a retread of the opening and closing scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and, the greatest sin of all, it is nowhere near as exciting or inventive as most of the other set-pieces that preceded it.

These are serious problems but they don’t completely sink “Crystal Skull” because when it works, it really works. The opening sequence is a hugely entertaining thrill ride (even though many of its key moments have already been seen in the trailer) and the movie ups that ante later on with a funny motorcycle chase with some Soviet agents through a sleepy college town (including a detour through an anti-commie pep rally) and an extended sequence in the jungles of Peru involving speeding jeeps, swordfights, flying machinery, two-fisted monkeys and an attack by a swarm of ants that would give even the beasts from “The Naked Jungle” the willies. Technically, the film is excellent as well--cinematographer Jansuz Kaminski does a good job of making the film look as one with the previous films (which were all shot by Douglas Slocombe) and I appreciated Spielberg’s choice to lean more on practical effects and longer takes on the action sequences than on the overuse of CGI effects and rapid-fire editing that has plagued too many action films of late. Many of the performances, while obviously not what one might consider to be award material by any means, are quite entertaining in the way that the actors seem to be having fun without simply coasting through the parts. Having been an increasingly remote grump on the screen in the last few years, it is a thrill to see Harrison Ford in a role that he actually seems happy to be playing--he is engaged in a way that we haven’t seen him be in a long time, especially in his scenes with Karen Allen, whose late-inning arrival gooses up the proceedings at precisely the moment when they need to be goosed up. Finally, Cate Blanchett is a delight as the evil Irina Spalko--with her icy demeanor, icier skills and barely suppressed kinky streak, she may well be the most memorable villain of the entire series, which only makes it more disappointing that no one involved could figure out a better exit for her than the one seen here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” doesn’t quite live up to either the specter of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or the intense pre-release hype that began when it started shooting and stopped being nothing more than a fan boy dream. Then again, there are very few films that could possibly live up to either one of those burdens, let alone both of them. However, it does come closer to replicating the mixture of fun, excitement and artistic commitment than the other post-”Raiders” excursions and while it is frustratingly uneven at certain points and never quite as good as some might have hoped, it never quite as bad as some might have feared and it certainly displays more sheer filmmaking style than virtually all of the would-be blockbusters that have appeared on movie screens so far this year. It may not capture the public’s imagination in the way that “Iron Man” evidently has but it does provide for two hours of solid and occasionally spectacular entertainment and, more importantly, it doesn’t trash any fondly-held childhood memories along the way.

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