Indiana Rides Again 

A classic screen character returns in improbably good form.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull starts perfectly. A group of teens are crowded in a jalopy tearing across the Nevada desert, Elvis' "Hound Dog" blasting on their radio. The car veers onto a highway and starts teasing with a convoy of army vehicles. The sequence climaxes with a minor road race between the hot rod and the lead army car. Then the scene ends as the convoy turns off the road toward a military base. The kids are never seen again, and nothing plot-worthy comes of their appearance.

What a way to start a movie fraught with astronomic expectations, one released 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hugely successful capper to what was, at the time, a trilogy. Long in development, with major plot points rumored and debated by legions of fans, Crystal Skull was a risky movie move. If it failed, it threatened to sully the reputation of the original trilogy, as the Star Wars prequels did to their cinematic siblings.

So the message sent by director Steven Spielberg in the opening: Sit back and relax. Have fun. Come along for the ride.

And that's exactly what Crystal Skull is: a thrill ride. With the exception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this latest Indiana Jones installment most successfully captures the spirit of matinee serials from the 1930s and '40s, one of the primary cultural references of the films.

But the setting of Crystal Skull is 1957, and herein lies a major tonal shift from the previous Indiana Jones films. Crystal Skull reflects and is totally immersed in 1950s culture, just as the original trilogy was steeped in the '30s and was grounded in the build-up to World War II.

Crystal Skull wades in the paranoia of the Cold War in the throes of the Red Scare, the science-fiction literature and films of the '50s, and the teen spirit buoyant in the nascent rock-and-roll age. The Nazis of yesteryear are traded in for Soviet villains, with rapier-wielding Russian psionics warrior Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) as the chief baddie. Harrison Ford reprises his role as Indiana, but this time even the all-American hero can't escape being an FBI "person of interest," suspected of un-American activities.

The character Indiana is reintroduced in the middle of a bad jam. He and a fellow archaeologist/adventurer, George McHale (Ray Winstone), have been captured by Spalko and her Commie henchmen and ordered to help locate a mysterious artifact kept under lock and key in an Air Force warehouse.

Soon enough, though escaping from the Russkies, Indy has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire: He stumbles unsuspectingly across the desert onto an atomic proving ground. The set piece — with Indy stuck in a mannequin town in the Nevada wastes as a nuclear bomb is detonated — is one of the best things in the whole damn movie series.

click to enlarge Shia LeBeouf, Harrison Ford, and Karen Allen
  • Shia LeBeouf, Harrison Ford, and Karen Allen

It's great to see Ford again in the defining role of his career. Crystal Skull notably takes place a couple of decades after the setting of Last Crusade, so the character and actor have aged at the same speed. When Indiana says, "It's not as easy as it used to be," there's no questioning the fact for the action actor. But Ford gamely does most of his own stunts, as usual, and if you see Indiana limping from time to time, well, it's all the more poignant. And Ford's acting, when Indiana reacts to seeing Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) for the first time in years, is absolutely priceless.

Blanchett works well for the most part as the villain. Though Spalko and Indiana don't have much chemistry, she's a formidable presence by herself. And listening to Blanchett's accent as she curls über-Russian consonants is a thing of joy.

Shia LeBeouf co-stars in a part that could have wrecked the whole ship. He's Mutt Williams, a Wild One wannabe who comes to Indy to enlist his help in tracking down Professor Oxley (John Hurt), his missing mentor and a former colleague of Jones'.

Though he's often used for comic relief, LeBeouf is no weak link — he's no Short Round (or Jar Jar Binks, for that matter). Though Mutt — who pulls out a comb to fix his hair when he's not flashing a switchblade — could easily have fallen into parody, LeBeouf plays him straight. He doesn't undermine the character for cheap laughs or force the anger brimming below the character's surface. He's a rebel with a cause.

The only real disappointing aspect of the film is that the archaeological hook isn't very sharp. It could just be personal preference, but mysterious crystal skulls aren't nearly as fascinating as the other artifacts sought after before.

Raiders and Last Crusade were especially great because the mysteries behind the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail were as interesting in and of themselves as they were effective in serving as MacGuffins. I'd put the crystal skulls neck and neck with the glowing rocks from Temple of Doom in terms of intrigue.

Overwhelming everything, though, is the entertainment value of the film. Spielberg turns the swashbuckle knob to 11, proving again why he's one of the great directors of the age with boisterous, dynamic visuals. In fact, a film that could have been a throwaway or money grab, like Crystal Skull, may say a lot more about his skill as a director than more serious-minded efforts such as Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, or Munich.

Crystal Skull harkens back to an age when Foley artists got paid overtime to make sound effects and stuntmen got to risk their necks without a CGI net. I've hardly stopped thinking about it once in two days.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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