By Pete Vonder Haar | May 25, 2008

How does one preface a review of the first Indiana Jones movie in almost 20 years? Ultimately, I couldn’t decide between discussing my enduring love of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” making snotty remarks about Harrison Ford’s age, or embarking on a trenchant analysis of Shia LaBeouf’s career. So it’ll have to suffice for me to say that “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is a very good film. And though it falls well short of the greatness that is “Raiders,” it may be my favorite of the sequels.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of “Last Crusade” and the world has changed dramatically. WWII is over, the Bomb is a reality, and the Cold War is escalating fiercely. Even so, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. remains stubbornly – and comfortably – familiar, still sporting the same outfit and stubble as when we last saw him riding off into the sunset in “Last Crusade.” He’s much older, certainly, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to throw in the towel when a bunch of Soviet commandos order him to recover a crate containing… something recovered from the 1947 Roswell crash site.

The first act, which ranges from legendary Warehouse 51 (current resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, among other things) across the Nevada desert, is ridiculous; a near-constant array of action and stuntwork designed to convince us Ford is still up to the job. It’s also ridiculously entertaining, perfectly capturing the spirit of the franchise and starting things off on an admirably high note.

And while all the things you’ve missed out on for the last 19 years are back (the hat, the whip, the punches that sound like someone slammed a Studebaker door on a side of beef), the high doesn’t really last. Indy’s adventures in the desert result in a forced leave of absence from his teaching job at Marshall College (where the students are still reading Michelson). On his way out of town, he’s approached by one Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), a wannabe biker rebel who insists he was sent by his mother on behalf of an old colleague to convince Indy to go to South America in search of a mythical lost city.

The two set off, with the Soviets also in the hunt (now it’s Stalin who’s obsessed with finding occult artifacts). Led by future BDSM icon Col. Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the Russians aren’t quite as menacing as the Nazis of the first and third installments, but it isn’t like the Soviet Union ever killed millions of innocent people.* Along the way, puzzles are solved, betrayals are uncovered, and a beloved character we haven’t seen since “Raiders” is reintroduced.

Hint: it’s not Belloq.

As much joy as it would give me to praise “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” unreservedly, there are some noticeable defects. We’ll take the excessive amount of CGI as a given, especially since I don’t think it’s possible for George Lucas to be involved in a movie unless at least a third of it is conceived in the design lab at ILM. Some of the results are, admittedly, pretty cool (the climax to the opening act, for example), but the majority is intrusive and frankly lazy. I realize in this day and age that it’s no longer necessary to go overseas and shoot scenes set in overseas locales… except that’s what they did for the first three movies. Far too much of the film’s second half is a frenetic assault of obvious green screen crapola (the fencing sequence is frighteningly reminiscent of the lava lightsaber duel in “Revenge of the Sith”), and is it really so hard to use actual monkeys? Really?

And whether it’s an attempt to avoid long, “Temple of Doom”-ish, action-free sequences or simply capitulation to an audience one generation away from Max Headroom-style blipverts, Spielberg and Lucas are unwilling or unable to take a breather. So much time is devoted to jungle jeep chases and elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions that we get precious little time to catch up with Marion (a still spunky Karen Allen) or learn more about what Jones has been up to for the last 20 years (though some tantalizing hints are dropped, any of which sound like they also would’ve made for a good movie).

Surprisingly, LaBeouf isn’t as irritating as you might assume. If Mutt’s tough guy posturing seems tough to swallow, that’s because the character is actually a bright kid. And even when he screws things up, at least he’s relatively quiet about it, unlike Willie Scott or Short Round.

I can’t deny it: I had a s**t-eating grin on my face for most of the ensuing two hours. I also can’t deny that many of the criticisms about to be leveled at Spielberg and Lucas over “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” are well-deserved, but it’s still good to see Indiana Jones, and Marion, back in action one last time. And I sincerely believe it is the last, for while much has been made of Lucas’ comments about continuing the franchise with LaBeouf… well, let’s just say they make it pretty clear the hat won’t be handed down anytime soon.

* Note: sarcasm

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