Thanks to three big-budget '80s thrill rides, Indiana Jones is one of the most iconic characters ever to grace the big screen. Indiana Jones movies basically define the big-budget thrill ride, the summer blockbuster, the popcorn movie. Now, following incessant prodding by George Lucas, Indy's once again gracing the big screen, this time embodying a new trend: a classic movie trilogy brought into a new decade with a tacked-on sequel or prequel, a la Star Wars, Alien, and Rambo. The track record isn't good. Could he buck the trend?
Well, yes, kind of. Steven Spielberg knows how to make a fun flick, and that's what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is. It's a comfortable ride, no brain required, with no image more enjoyable than the very first shot of our hero picking up his hat. It's satisfying for the simple reason that it's him: greyer, more wrinkled, less invincible, but still Indy. For better or worse, that also applies to the film itself. It looks and feels like an Indiana Jones movie, although the plot's more rickety than usual, the by-committee script's only serviceable, and the pleasures are modest relative to the expectations attached.
The opening action scene kicks the movie off with a bang, easing in an older Indy in a fight against a new enemy, personified by a miscast but game Cate Blanchett as an evil Ukrainian psychic, Irina Spalko. (As in Temple of Doom, the Nazis are really missed; Thuggees and Reds just aren't the same.) Betrayed by an old army buddy, the always-enjoyable Ray Winstone, Indy narrowly escapes with his hide, after brandishing his whip, his wits, and surviving a vintage 1950s mushroom cloud. The requisite smirking "I'm getting too old for this" comments are kept to a minimum, and the pace is relatively brisk, from the nuclear blast in the Nevada desert to sinister G-men on the Princeton campus (featuring a welcome small role played by Jim Broadbent as Indy's dean) to a manhunt in South America.
Shia LeBoeuf plays Indy's young protege, Mutt, sent by his mother to enlist Indiana into the search for Indy's former mentor, Harold Oxley, a brilliant professor whose life's work was a search for the Crystal Skull. They delve into the mumbo-jumbo, which Indy negotiates with ease, and then hop a plane to Peru. Thankfully, there isn't too much thudding exposition; no amount of dialogue could make the dumb Lucas-penned plot any more sensical. The movie is a treasure hunt, an expensive shiny loud special effect-packed romp, and the less you mind the plot the better. The MacGuffin -- the Skull itself -- has all sorts of magic powers, none of which make sense, and as usual it's best if you don't try too hard to think about it.
The film lopes into its second half with the welcome appearance of Karen Allen as Marion, by far the best heroine in the series, still looking lovely if a bit dappled at 56. As in the first movie, her antagonism toward Indy melts too rapidly to be believable, but it's a thoroughly welcome romance, and character development was never all that essential to the stories. If only she had been in all the movies.
Introduced at the same time as Allen is John Hurt as Oxley, who has been driven mad by the Crystal Skull, whom the Communists are trying to use to exploit the Skull's uncertain powers. In his character's mindless stupor, Hurt spends most of the movie babbling incoherently. Overall, the cast is stacked but not fully utilized, with Jim Broadbent and John Hurt unfortunately given too little to do, Blanchett in full cruise mode, and LeBoeuf enjoyable but bland as a greaser who spends most of his reaction shots combing his own hair. Winstone and Allen are enjoyable in their time, and even at his age Harrison Ford gets more acting out of 5-day shadow than most other stars can muster in their entire body.
The movie has a bit of a rote feel -- here's the chase, here's the banter, here's the bad guy. Like Live Free or Die Hard, another fourth entry in a classic action trilogy, the movie's plot has been kicked around for a decade and a half, and so it feels stuck in the mid-'90s, better suited for Men in Black than for Indiana Jones.
There's also a sense of tired repertory. The series has always been intensely self-reflexive: Club Obi-Wan in Temple of Doom was a classic Lucas in-joke, and many scenes Last Crusade either referenced or remade shots from Raiders. But Crystal Skull is weighed down rather than buoyed by its cinematic shoutouts. Throwaway reaction shots of prairie dogs are annoying, unnecessarily cutesy, and eerily reminiscent of Ewoks. The climactic jungle chase scene feels (and sometimes is filmed) like the Endor speeder scene in Return of the Jedi. In keeping with the recycled Star Wars theme, Indiana Jones even says "I have a bad feeling about this," a line repeated in each film of the original Star Wars trilogy.
Maybe Indy suffers from his success: the treasure hunter formula has been done to death since Raiders did it first and best, so maybe there's just nothing more to be done with the framework. Certainly, there was no need for a fourth Indy movie, but what they came up with was pleasant enough that I'm not sorry they went to the effort. Though I wish they'd put a little more effort into the storyline. I doubt I'll buy it on Blu-Ray, but if it turns up on cable, I probably won't change the channel. And that's more than you could say for a lot of movies this year -- or even most of last year's Oscar contenders.