So how is it? Not bad. Pretty good, actually — you definitely get your money’s worth. And if this were a world into which no swashbuckling archaeologist had ever set dusty-booted foot before, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” might seem a more resonant cultural event than the very large box-office event it’s about to become.
But the picture has a built-in disappointment factor. The first Indy film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which came out 27 years ago, has proved to be an unrepeatable adventure classic. “Temple of Doom,” released in 1984, was a puzzling misstep into darkness and sadism (director Steven Spielberg later apologized for it). And by the time of the 1989 “Last Crusade,” an attempted retrenchment, the series was clearly going soft. But those three films, all set amid the Deco and dangers of the 1930s, formed a vibrant pulp universe of heroism, humor, geographical exotica and occult intrigue. Each picture was baited with tantalizing historical arcana — the Ark of the Covenant, the Well of Souls, the Kali cult, the Holy Grail — and each one, in varying degrees, was stoked with colorful characters.
Now, 19 years after Indy’s last expedition, we have what is essentially an action movie executed at a very high level by a famously gifted director. And while it will surely make record amounts of money, it doesn’t feel as if it were made solely for that reason. (How much wealthier could Spielberg and co-producer George Lucas — weighing in on the story once again — wish to become?) The picture has a lively script, some great effects and exciting set-piece scenes, but there’s no recapturing the raptures of the past, the old thrills that once were new. There are the expected allusions to Indy elements of yore — Professor Jones in his college classroom and hurrying home to pack for another expedition; the creeping red line that tracks his flight across a world map; the onslaughts of icky insects (scorpions and killer ants, in this case) and of course a hateful snake. But this tickling checklist can’t help but remind us that “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” has no new components of the same memorable sort.
It has no Nazis, either, which is too bad — as Spielberg himself has noted, there’s no more convenient cinematic shorthand for ultimate evil than a bunch of Nazis. “Kingdom” is set in 1957, a dozen years after the actual Nazis were crushed. Now we’re in the atomic age (a billowing mushroom cloud is one of the movie’s most ravishing CGI moments); there’s a Cold War on, and Soviet Russia and the U.S. are facing off around the globe. The Soviets here are a duller bunch than the Hitler minions who tormented our hero in the past — although Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, the sword-wielding Soviet “psychic researcher” who dogs Indy’s trail as he hunts down a legendary crystal skull through the Amazon jungle, is a lot more fun than Elsa Schneider, the blonde, bland Nazi groupie in “The Last Crusade.” And while there’s nothing in this movie as brilliantly constructed as the long opening nightclub bust-out in “Temple of Doom,” there’s nothing as tedious as the gabbling old Indian geezer in that one, either.
Both Indy and Harrison Ford, who once again plays him, are much older now, of course, and Ford is happy to go along with some good-natured jibes about his elder-adventurer status (“What’re you, 80?”). But since he was a motivating force in getting this movie made, you have to assume that Ford wanted the wisecracks in, if for no other reason than to preempt critical carping. And it should be noted that he does most of his own stunts (you can tell when he doesn’t), and he’s still got the moves.
Ford’s age and the return of Marion Ravenwood (still-spunky Karen Allen), his love interest in “Raiders,” set up the possibility of a succession with the appearance of a young and rather Indy-like adventurer named Mutt (gamely played by Shia LaBeouf). Mutt enters the picture on a motorcycle, the very image, in his black leather jacket and tan cap, of the Marlon Brando of 1953 in “The Wild One”; and he quickly draws Indy into a search for the crystal skull (an actual artifact — well, hoax — of the 19th century). Soon the ever-game archaeologist is back in his fedora, bullwhip at his waist, and the whole group — along with Indy’s shifty old colleague Mac (Ray Winstone) — is off to Peru, with Irina Spalko and her KGB thugs in furious pursuit.
There follow some remarkable scenes, among them a breathtakingly well-staged truck chase through the jungle, a hair-raising plunge down three separate waterfalls, and a swarming attack by the aforementioned killer ants. There are also some scary, mud-caked natives; a subterranean temple of gold; and a towering, Transformer-like mystical obelisk. Unfortunately, there is also another archaeologist on hand, a doddering burnout named Oxley (John Hurt), whose gibbering ever-presence soon becomes tiresome. And the vaunted crystal skull, when we finally see it, resembles an oversized version of the sort of plastic product one might purchase in an action-figure emporium.
This is certainly a movie that will gun the engines of anyone unfamiliar with the earlier Indiana Jones pictures. But in an age of DVDs and box sets, how many such people can there be? Veteran Indy enthusiasts may feel a little let down. The thrills are still here, but they’re no longer fresh. And as well-done as the movie is — and as cute as the period sci-fi and rock-and-roll touches are — there’s no shaking the wistful feeling that we’ve passed through these perils before, when they were a little more fun.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Postal,” also new in theaters this week.
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.
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