Morphing Paramount’s old-school mountain logo into a live-action molehill is an early chuckle in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s also a sufficiently reversed metaphor for enjoying the film: Temper those too-towering expectations for a sequel 19 years in the making.
Indiana Jones, that dashing and wily idolized hero of old, is now … old. That doesn’t mean Indy is any less entertaining in the hands of Harrison Ford (finally with a pulse after 11 years of flatline work) and Steven Spielberg (working in a wheelhouse of hurly-burly homage, action and humor).
OK, George Lucas is involved, too. But he’s the likely perp behind Peruvian pygmies protecting a cemetery who suddenly disappear and a scene when co-star Shia LaBeouf dangles from a vine and … well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself. (Those who bristled at Temple of Doom’s raft escape will have as much to groan about here.)
Yes, Indy still is an engaging everyman. For much of Skull, Spielberg balances frenetic energy with his aged hero’s slowdown. It’s a wise move, considering a component of the film’s audience probably hasn’t been to the movies in years and will turn out just for this. Indy’s the same, only creakier, a tad less agile and at an age “where life stops giving us things and starts taking them.” It’s a blockbuster affectionately aimed as much at the AARP crowd as those who grew up with Indy.
The problem is everybody has knocked this stuff off since CGI killed matte effects. Spielberg crafts three terrific action sequences and the film’s crisp look is gangbusters. But working from a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, Spielberg’s favorite-son writer David Koepp can’t come up with anything better than a zoned-out, stand-around ending that easily could be National Treasure 3.
Skull is set in 1957, 19 years after Indy’s now next-to-last crusade, and opens with a prototypically explosive prologue. Here, Indy must escape evil Russians — led by ice-eyed Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) — who’ve kidnapped and dragged him to a New Mexico hangar. Spalko is a daffy mentalist who talks like Natasha Fatale and wields a blade, but the Oscar winning Blanchett has nothing on Doom’s Mola Ram. Yanking beating hearts from chests trumps mind reading.
Indy’s flight involves gunplay, car chases, whip-work, a rocket sled and even an atomic blast, with more quick thinking than brute-force escape. And it’s some of the most organically orchestrated action ever shot, with smooth camerawork that instills confidence in its choreography.
Indy makes it, but betrayal by sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone, swarthy, sweaty and scummy) sparks a Communist-sympathy misunderstanding that gets him canned from his college position. (Jim Broadbent has a small, but effective, role, as Indy’s sympathetic dean.) And not even Indy’s sterling World War II record — he spent it fighting the Nazis, naturally — can speak for itself.
It’s just a red-scare cap to a rough couple of years. Dad is gone, as is pal Marcus Brody. The moments of melancholy in the movie are handled just right, and Brody is eulogized in two moments with respect to both the late Denholm Elliott’s work as well as this film’s generation gap.
That’s where Mutt Williams (LaBeouf) comes in, a hot-tempered greaser interrupting Indy just as he’s ready to spend his twilight overseas. LaBeouf rides in on his motorcycle like a spitting image of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. LaBeouf’s far from ready for that mantle yet, but he’s convincing in what should be the final gestation period for his grooming as a bonafide star.
Harold Oxley (John Hurt) is Mutt’s mentor and Indy’s peer and has gone missing after pursuing crystal skulls of ancient Peruvian importance. Dispatched by his mom to seek Indy’s help, Mutt uses stubborn resourcefulness to help them both evade KGB agents (another great sequence). Soon enough, Mutt and Indy are packing for Peru.
There, they’ll tussle with Spalko (hoping to infiltrate America through mind control), reunite with Indy’s greatest love, Marion (Karen Allen, as mouthy a firebrand as 27 years ago), and encounter something more out of this world than in any of Indy’s previous exploits.
Spielberg runs free in this Amazonian playground, particularly with a three-jeep chase on a precarious Cliffside road. It’s a scene that’s ludicrous fun even while it’s blowing its gasket while paying tribute to both Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller in a matter of moments.
Watching Spielberg and Co. take the story in otherworldly direction isn’t the surprise. It’s the downer lack of enthusiasm in doing so. But salvageable even from its dizzy mish-mash ending are several examples of just how joyfully jaw-dropping it is to see Indiana Jones back after so long.
Ford’s performance is perfect, reminiscent of how he rightfully ascended to stardom in the first place. It’s a laundry list of great moments: unnerved comedy over the snakes he hates; umpteen emotions behind the giddy schoolboy smile he flashes at Marion when they meet again; and, especially, a terse romantic phrase to Marion that’s enough to make even the manliest men swoon.
Skull also is filled with beautiful shots of composition that Spielberg can add to his canon, whether it’s the Southwest’s Fiestaware colors or haunting silhouettes on sackcloth deep in the Amazon. Yet the film’s climactic effects shot, odd as its content is, has a resonating vantage point.
One character looks out on a washed-away legacy and realizes a different sort of knowledge is a different sort of treasure. Just know that Skull isn’t going to be anything like its predecessors, and you’ll find it mostly impressive on its own terms.