Friday, March 12, 2010

Archive: 'Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull'

Movie Review
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Since I'm still humming the theme song, that pretty much means I'm required to give my recommendation. Not that it's against my will, though. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (try saying the title without cracking a smile) is fantastic entertainment from start to finish. After a 19 year absence, Indiana Jones has finally returned with a grand welcoming, and it's sure not to disappoint. It was only since a couple weeks ago that I have seen the previous movies in the series, and all you can really do is compare "Crystal Skull" to the other three because they exist in a world all their own. None can rival 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" because it's a stand-alone action masterpiece. And then the sequels (1984's "Temple of Doom" and 1989's "Last Crusade") drop off from there. So where does that leave this latest installment?

It's a reinvigoration of what we've come to know and love from the series. It's a throwback to the classic adventure genre, a genre which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented in the first place. Directed by Spielberg and written by Lucas, it's apparent that these guys had no problem getting right back into things and getting the job done. They stick to the formula, and for once, sticking to the formula isn't a bad thing because they discovered that, guess what? This formula works. As Indy would say himself, it's the "same old, same old," but then again, what else would fans want coming in? The material is never going to feel fresh again so having more of the same is just fine because that entails what made the other three so great: the cheeky humor, the witty one-liners, the rip-roaring action sequences, the dazzling special effects, and the marvelous set pieces. It's old-fashioned in the very best way possible.

Last time we saw Indy, he was riding off into the sunset with his dad. Now, he is thrust, along with the audience, into a new era filled with vile Russians of the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It's 1957 in the midst of the Cold War, and Indiana Jones, played by a now graying Harrison Ford, has just been kidnapped with his sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone), by the slinky femme fatale Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett in a refreshingly silly role that she seems to enjoy thoroughly). She and her band of Soviet cohorts have taken Indy to a warehouse full of crates filled with ancient artifacts. The particular crate she is hunting for contains a super magnetized crystal skull that is supposedly the key to all knowledge and potential mind control.

It's much too complicated to bother explaining how uncovering this crate eventually leads Indy, Mac, Irina, and a bunch of Russians with guns up the Amazon River. Along the way, Indy meets a biker kid who repeatedly slicks his hair back with a comb named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf, who gives some kick). He wants Indy to help him find his kidnapped mother, who is somehow linked to the mysterious skull. Later in the journey, we find out that Mutt's mother just so happens to be Marion Ravenwood, Indy's girlfriend from the very first movie. She is yet again played by Karen Allen who, like Harrison Ford, has aged over the years. But even in her fifties, she's still got plenty of spunk. They also gather up Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who plays the pivotal role of that one guy who knows and explains everything.

And there's the traditional gliding red line that traces the journey on a map, as seen in every other Indiana Jones movie. And also in tradition, there's the establishing action sequence that is the middle point of each adventure. In "Raiders," it was the hijacking of a convoy containing the Ark. In "Temple," it was the mine ride. And in "Crusade," it was the encounter with the tank. This time, in "Skull," it takes the form of a thrilling jeep chase throughout the forests of the Amazon. Each character finds themselves at the wheel of one or more jeeps fighting for their life. Mutt even finds himself balancing between two of the vehicles in the middle of an intense sword fight with Irina. And then come the monkeys, the man-eating ants, the cliff, and the fall down three consecutive waterfalls.

Yes, it's wild, yes, it's ridiculous, yes, it's unrealistic, but when was it ever not? And it's impossible to be bothered by it when it's this much fun to watch and experience. In the same tradition as the action sequence, there is always the hugely climactic moment of discovery, which is certainly not missing here. Without giving it away, let's just say it's certainly the most interesting yet. It comes in the form of finding a chamber filled with 13 crystal skeletons, one of which is missing it's skull. Lucky of Indy's friend Oxley to be in possession of that 13th skull. What follows is a magnificent event, something that you would only find in a movie starring Indiana Jones.

"So, what are you, like, 80?" the cocky Mutt asks Indy. Not quite. Harrison Ford is 65, but that doesn't stop him here. Besides, Indiana Jones has always had a rough-and-tumble look to him, so it's actually quite fitting to finally see the effects of time upon the hero we've come to know and first met 27 years ago. Ford is, in a word, awesome. He's full of life and vigor and returns to form to give us one more hell of a rousing show, and you can tell he loves every minute of it. And even at this age, Indy still manages to get the girl. Granted, though, this time the girl is a returning love, a reunion that we've been waiting a long time for. And we're even thrown for a moment when Indy's famed hat gets blown into the hands of the young Mutt. Right before he has a chance to put it on, Indy swipes it out from under him and rightfully places it upon his own head. There's simply no replacing him.

By being somewhat nostalgic in his return to the beginning of his career, Spielberg, rather than milking the series, pays tribute to it. Rather than disgracing the memories of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which many were afraid of in the first place, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" reinforces and strengthens our memories by bringing back familiar faces and an old flame. Even in the first scene, there's the sense of fun that characterizes the movie in reintroducing Ford. We see his hat followed by his silhouette. Cue the John Williams. And then in a close-up, he mutters, "Russians." It's simple: If you like Indiana Jones, you'll enjoy this, and if you don't, well then, you won't. Either way, it's bound to be this summer's biggest hit at the box office if not of the entire year.

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