Movie Review
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"
by Bill Gallagher

The answer: Yes. The question: Does the Indiana Jones formula have any life left in it?

It’s alive and kicking Indy in the gut every chance it gets during the two-hour, long- delayed, warily-awaited sequel called “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

The answer is also yes to the question of whether Harrison Ford is still convincing and entertaining as Indiana Jones.

It looks like the only concession to the elapsed time since the last installment in 1989, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” is Director Steven Spielberg giving us a lot fewer close-ups of Ford and his returning costar Karen Allen. Ford doesn’t look like Walter Brennan. Yet. But the 27 years since we first saw Indy on the big screen would take a toll on any man, even one who just a decade ago was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Fortunately, the action makes no concessions. Ford is as game as ever for the punishing thrill ride that is the life of the greatest hero he’ll ever play.

In fact, it’s the action and the occasional star turn from Ford that makes “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a worthy addition to the Jones trilogy. It’s not equal to the first (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) but holds its own alongside the other two (“Temple of Doom” and “The Last Crusade”).

In a weird opening segment Spielberg gives us a drag race between a military convoy and four reckless youths flying along in a convertible coupe while Elvis’ “Hound Dog” blares in the background. Is this Spielberg just showing off? No one shoots better chase scenes these days, but what’s the point of this? Well, just as the hotrod heads left, “Hound Dog” fades and the convoy turns right. We see a beat-up, burnt-out sign for the Atomic Cafe. So times have changed since Indy last set out on another quixotic, archaeological mission. Back then it was the Nazis and the threat of world domination. Now we’re talking Commies and world destruction.

So how does a crystal skull kingdom fit into all this? Whoa! It’s way too soon to start worrying about plot. Enjoy the action. And savor the entrance of Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, some kind of obsessive Russian officer who is Joe Stalin’s psychic. Blanchett almost blows this role by overplaying it. But she soon figures out that you don’t steal scenes from Indiana Jones and settles into the part. She and Indy want the same thing, the crystal skulls, which reside inside some Rube Goldberg-designed South American sand pit.

Indy is fired from his teaching job for what happened west of the Atomic Cafe. He’s accused of cooperating with the KGB. So he boards a train to get out of town. It’s a classic train depot shot with big, puffy clouds of steam. All that’s missing is the tearful farewell of two lovers. All of a sudden out of the clouds comes a cheap Brando knock-off from “The Wild One.” A teenage manchild on a motorcycle named Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf. He pulls alongside the train and asks Indy to help him find his guardian and his mother. His mother is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), but Indy doesn’t know that yet. And his guardian is an old colleague of Indy’s who’s been on the trail of some crystal skulls. And we are off!

You need to know that if at any time during this movie you begin to think that there’s no way this or that could happen, or that there’s no way Indy could stand up after such a beating, you should just slap yourself and say, “So what?!” I found myself hooting often at the audacity of Spielberg and Producer George Lucas in creating situations that will surely end our hero’s life — like a nuclear explosion, perhaps. Yes, Indy survives the big one. It’s just a test. In the Nevada desert. A 50s American tract home is perfectly recreated so that the test can be conducted. Indy’s tearing around a sparkly kitchen as the countdown gets to three.

How does he survive? Where does he hide? No way will I spoil the fun.

Fun is the key here. “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is fun enough to mask the clichés and contrivances in the script, and it’s enough fun to keep your interest when things slow down, as they inevitably do in any Spielberg project. Besides the nuclear explosion, there are constant run-ins with more conventional weaponry (swords, even) and some mano a mano battles between Indy and one of those unstoppable Russian bad guys. I wonder if they borrowed this one from an old James Bond movie.

It struck me how often Spielberg pays tribute to other great directors in all the Indiana Jones movies. The opening scenes in the desert evoke John Ford’s stunning vistas. The way events inexorably pull our man into the action is something Alfred Hitchcock mastered. Spielberg uses the camera to enhance the stature of our heroes as David Lean did so well. (Even if Ford no longer gets the close-up treatment like some latter-day Lawrence of Arabia.) And there’s a huge nod to the James Bond franchise in every one of the four Indy movies. Let’s face it, Indy’s just James Bond in rumpled clothes without the number and the libido.

There’s one scene with Ford that made me smile. It’s when he finally gets to where Mutt Williams’ mother is being held. No, he still hasn’t figured out who she is. Suddenly, from out of a beautifully back-lit flowing tent emerges Marion. And Indy gets this sappy grin on his face and gets a little weak-kneed as he greets her. This scene is a good example of why Indy Jones has been winning the hearts of moviegoers for so long. Ford plays the stand-up, alpha-male of the big screen with the best of them. He’s believed to be one of the richest men in Hollywood. As an actor, he’s had more hits than misses, but he’s never achieved the status of the great ones. His favorites were Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper. That makes sense. He’s subtle. He never overwhelms with his performance. But afterward you usually can’t imagine any other actor playing the role of Indiana Jones.

I wish I could say some nice things about Shia LaBeouf’s performance as the young Indiana Jones, but I can’t think of any. If his chip-on-the-shoulder performance is supposed to remind us of Brando or James Dean, that just isn’t going to happen. He’s more like someone out of Lucas’ first huge hit, “American Graffiti,” than a character from “On the Waterfront” or “Rebel without a Cause.” Spielberg throws a tease in at the end indicating that LaBeouf’s character might put on the hat of Indiana. Not, it turns out, if Jones has anything to say about it. And that’s good news. Kill the character rather than hand him over to LaBeouf.

In lesser roles are three fine British actors who must be loving the fact that they get to appear in movies that do billions at the worldwide box office. Following in the footsteps of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is Ray Winstone, who plays a double-crossing pal of Indy’s. Winstone was menacing as Jack Nicholson’s sidekick in “The Departed.” The great John Hurt plays the guardian Indy has to rescue from captivity near the location of the crystal skulls. He’s played recently in “V for Vendetta” and “Hellboy.” Jim Broadbent plays the Dean who quits when he has to fire Indy from the faculty. He’s been in “Hot Fuzz” and “Gangs of New York,” among other high-profile film projects.

Until we meet Indiana Jones again, if we do, “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” will do nicely as an adventure.

Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes the monthly movie column for BNW.

BrainstormNW - June 2008

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