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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull   B

Paramount Pictures / Lucasfilm

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: David Koepp
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Shia LeBeouf, Igor Jijikine.

Review by Rob Vaux

Perhaps the lessons of the Star Wars prequels have been well-learned... and no, I don't mean by George Lucas. I mean the unspeakable boom-and-bust cycle of fan expectations, where unreasonable hype gives way to crushing disappointment and knee-jerk hatred that ignores the very real strengths still on display. Early on, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looked set to fall into the same trap: fans in a psychotic lather, an ass-kicking preview creating insurmountable anticipation, and ominous rumblings from early screenings suggesting that things were far, far worse than anyone could imagine. We all started bracing ourselves for Jar-Jar 2.0. Now suddenly, the bombast and hysteria and narcissistic wailing about raped childhood have been replaced by... well, not naked gushing, but at least the sort of cautious praise that a film like this deserves.

It is, after all, a summer movie, and summer movies rarely aspire to great art. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark -- which I love more than life itself and which is a big reason why I do this today -- was always just good popcorn fun (okay, great popcorn fun). So too is its three-times-removed descendant, which picks up two decades after the last Indiana Jones movie left off. It doesn't change the course of motion picture history, it doesn't stretch the capacities of either Lucas or director/collaborator Steven Spielberg, and it might not even be the best film to come out this summer. It's simply a well-crafted bit of fun: better than many, not as good as some, but possessing a great big trump card that no other movie can approach.

That would be the title character, of course, transplanted here from the fearful occultism of the 1930s into the Brave New World of Eisenhower's America. The shift in eras may become a sticking point for purists, since the filmmakers have made certain adjustments to accommodate it. Shades of Lucas' American Graffiti linger over the opening credits, as bobby-soxed teens in rural Nevada race their deuce coupe to the musical stylings of Mr. Elvis Presley. Jones (who else but Harrison Ford?) is still alive and kicking, but the years have left him a little worse for wear. The Feds suspect him of Communist sympathies, despite the accolades he earned during the war. Many of his old friends are gone -- including Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott passed away in 1992) and his father Henry (Sean Connery declined to come out of retirement) -- and some of his new ones aren't quite as stalwart as they seem. But there's still danger and excitement to be had, arriving this time in the form of an ancient crystal skull that may originate from somewhere beyond the stars.

Note the subtle thematic differences between this film's Great Whatsit and earlier prizes like the Ark of the Covenant. Crystal Skull eschews the supernatural for slightly harder science fiction: more Fox Mulder than Doc Savage this time around. It aptly fits the historical period and the villains mesh well with it too, as Nazi mysticism gives way to the cold-hearted atheists of the Soviet Union. The Russkies' plans are no less sinister, only now it's all tied up in ESP and Nazca lines and chariots of the gods: occult to be sure, but a far cry from the religious overtones of the first three films. They may put some viewers off, but they're more or less the rules of the game. With Ford in his sixties, we have to move forward in time, and if we're going to do that, we may as well embrace it... which the filmmakers do with plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

Problems of a more troublesome nature arrive in the form of awkward plotting. The central mystery requires a considerable amount of explanation, which Crystal Skull can't integrate into its narrative as well as its predecessors. The skull originates from the lost city of El Dorado, uncovered by an old acquaintance of Indy's (John Hurt) and now sought by sinister Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, easily the series' best villain since Raiders). Jones has to get it back there, but how and why become the subject of interminable narrative wrangling. Indy expounds upon it at length to his new greaser sidekick Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) while they dodge KGB agents, plunder Peruvian cemeteries, and fight off various species of creepy crawly. Though bolstered by some great set pieces and Ford's gruff-but-still-charming performance, the constant exposition required to keep everything clear drags down the second act considerably.

An excess of adventuring partners complicates matters further. While Karen Allen makes a welcome re-appearance as the long-absent Marion Ravenwood -- still cutting Indy no slack whatsoever -- the remaining good guys feel uncomfortably tacked on. Ray Winstone's "Mac" McHale exists primarily to resolve certain story difficulties, while Hurt's part is clearly a rewritten version of Henry Jones Sr. Jim Broadbent, too, plays a fairly superfluous character who probably should have been Brody had circumstances been different. There's nothing to be done for it, of course -- and all three men are fine actors -- but denied the weight of more established figures, their connection to the proceedings becomes perfunctory at best. LaBeouf does better, with a nice sense of insouciance that plays well against Ford's perennial grump, but Crystal Skull still features a few too many faces parading through the landscape.

To counteract its shortcomings, what has the film got? It's got Indiana Freaking Jones, that's what. Atomic weapons cannot stop him. Femme fatales are powerless before him. Uppity young punks do not impress him. And in the final tally, Crystal Skull knows how to deliver him right. The sogginess of the middle third and the odd bit of head-scratching mayhem are more than matched by an excellent start and a superb finish. The opening sequence -- set amid the giant warehouse that closed Raiders -- is an unmitigated joy, topped by the single most breathtaking image I've seen in theaters this year. Spielberg bolsters the droopy center section with plenty of hidden ruins, mysterious puzzles, and bad guys for Indy to bash. An attack by carnivorous ants in the South American rain forest is no less shudder-inducing for its obvious CGI content, and the centerpiece chase scene is full of gleeful invention. While a few corny moments do crop up (some overly romantic schmaltz and an ill-conceived homage to Tarzan among others), it's hardly the first Indy movie guilty of such sins. And whenever doubt creeps in -- whenever we start to fear that the magic may be trickling away -- there's Ford, sliding into his signature role with nary a hiccup and making us all glad he dusted off the fedora one more time.

And in some ways, the 19-year hiatus between adventures has given Crystal Skull a genuinely fresh take on the character. We haven't seen Indy like this before, and the subtle differences make for a remarkably good fit without detracting from the fundamental hero he remains. He's a little slower, he's a little creakier, but he's still able to take a punch like nobody's business and even throw a few of his own. We've all aged along with him, and until now some of us had consigned him to the treasured memories of our childhood. Crystal Skull's ultimate merit lies in reminding us how much we may have missed him: buried beneath our adult cynicism but finding a way to escape just like he always does. Welcome home, old boy. It's damn good to see you again.

Review published 05.21.2008.

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