CINEMA: Whip It Good

indiana-jones-crystal-skull.jpg INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008, directed by Steven Spielberg, 124 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

When Raiders of the Lost Ark arrived in 1981, it was a 180-degree turn from the epics that the other New Generation Hollywood directors were making; let them have their glowering Colonel Kurtzes and their wife-beating Jake LaMottas. Spielberg and Lucas would reinvent the movie serials of ’30s & ’40s, with their iconic heroes and all the thrills of 13 chapters stuffed into a two-hour feature. Spielberg’s gift with pure action transformed Raiders into something transcendent, and in the decades since, any montage meant to evoke the magic of Hollywood had to contain a shot of Harrison Ford as the irascible Indiana Jones.

Spielberg finessed the job of putting Indy through his paces so well with Raiders it seemed assured that the sequels would pale in comparison. In 1984, Temple of Doom tried to top the original by stuffing it with so many action scenes that we couldn’t catch our breath, and ended up giving a definitive demonstration of why audiences need to breathe. With The Last Crusade, in 1989, it was finally time to make Indy human, and the character gained Sean Connery and a Daddy Complex — which gummed up the movie action. Even with the sequels’ much-noted shortcomings, they were justified by gargantuan box-office, and with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg gives every impression of being an elder statesman allowing himself to coast proudly through this outing with a victory lap. It’s an impressively mounted, grand-scale production, yet that whip just doesn’t quite crack the way it used to.

Set in 1957, it is Commie spies, not Nazis, who are holding Indy at gunpoint in the desert of Nevada at the film’s opening. Forced to locate a crate in a sprawling government warehouse, Indy uncovers what they’re looking for: the corpse of an alien body he’d been brought to examine years before. With the John Williams score trumpeting away, he’s soon dodging machine-gun fire as he rolls and tumbles between collapsing props and escapes once again. Indy returns to the university, where he hooks up with a leather-jacketed young rebel named Mutt, played by Shia Laboeuf, who is trussed up like Brando in The Wild One. His main function is to look at Indy with awe. Before you know it, the prop plane is vaulting them both across the globe with a red line marking its path toward danger.

The arrival of Indy (first his hat, then his shadow), the first burst of action and a wild motorcycle chase throughGreetings_from_Indiana.jpg the ivy-clad college town help enliven the opening hour, and there’s that old-fashioned fizz fans of the series will recognize. The film is at its best when Indy is in unfamiliar territory, plopped down in the 1950’s, out of sorts in a world of Elvis, the academic blacklist and a spookily sterile suburban America.

As for the crystal skull, its power and purpose seems about as important as whatever propels James Bond through one of his adventures — it’s just another bauble that stands between the bad guys and world domination. If the script doesn’t care about the crystalline doohickey, it does care about Indy’s private life, trying to pump some sentiment by digging up Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s love interest in the original, and saddling the whip-snapper with a son he never knew he had. I’m not sure why they think we’re interested in Indy’s romantic life, as he seems about as sexy as the Lone Ranger, and the cloying, flat-soda dialog soon triggered my childhood “Ick, girls!” reflex.

By the film’s second half the novelty of seeing Indy back in the saddle inevitably wanes and we’re stuck with creaky, CGI-assisted retreads of previous scenes of gravity-defying derring-do from the series: more jungles chases, more scary natives and more melting-face men as the film tags every base the producers think will make it a home run with audiences. I like Laboeuf (with an anxious earnestness reminiscent of 80’s uber-goof Steve Guttenberg) although by the time they send him swinging through the trees like Tarzan it was beginning to feel like we should just go home and play the video game instead. Crystal Skull is hardly the disaster that last episode of Stallone’s Rocky saga was; Ford remains somehow convincing as the fist-fighting Jones and it is a pleasant surprise to look upon the bright blue eyes of the little-seen Karen Allen. Still, I went home with the feeling that I just saw a summer reunion tour by a dinosaur act that hasn’t recorded any new tunes in decades. I’m game for a little ’80s nostalgia but Spielberg’s recent work has led us to expect more.

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