Saturday, May 24, 2008



Warning: minor SPOILERS ahead ...

- Here's the thing about Indiana Jones: I, and I suspect many of you, love the IDEA of Indiana Jones. I love the iconography - the hat, the bullwhip. I love the mood, the atmosphere, the pulpy fun of the original films. I love the classic John Williams score. I love seeing Harrison Ford in almost any action movie - few other actors have ever been more closely associated with the notion of the consummate action hero. But let's face it folks ... in the decades since RAIDERS first hit the big screen, Indiana Jones the icon has outgrown Indiana Jones the film series. Indy is and has long been everywhere. We see the films parodied. We see the toys, the videogames, the themepark rides. The iconography of Indiana Jones is now a part of American pop-culture history. So now, here in 2008, we're in the unique position of actually having a new Indy film in theaters, after an almost twenty year gap since The Last Crusade. And this comes in a time when we've seen a new Die Hard, a new Rocky, a new Rambo, and three Star Wars prequels. A time when all the old favorites are being milked for every penny, and when the old actors and directors decide to go back to their bread and butter one last time.

But with Indy in particular, like I said ... to me, it's a franchise where the iconography has always trumped the actual films. And that's why I pick TEMPLE OF DOOM as my personal favorite installment - it plays up the pulpiness to the upteenth degree. It's a literal rollercoaster ride of a movie, drenched in atmosphere, rife with all manner of vile villains and exotic locales. It has the mine cart ride, bloodthirsty crocodiles, weird voodoo dolls, and a badguy who rips his victims hearts out of their chests. Sure, the movie's campy as hell, but it's not trying to be anything other than the best campy bit of pulpy goodness it can be.

With THE LAST CRUSADE, the purity of Raiders and the pulpiness of Doom gave way to somethign a bit more crowd-pleasing: Spielbergian sentiment. Sure, everyone loves a good father-son parable, but ... is that really what Indiana Jones is all about?

Well, if the Last Crusade was a fun but somewhat watered-down version of Indy, then KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is a crazy mashup of all three of the previous movies, with a hefty does of "WTF" weirdness thrown in for good measure.

First, the good news: okay, well, the best news ... Harrison Ford is back. Yes, he's looking a bit old and frail here, but with that being said, any film fan will smile when they see Ford as Indy on the big screen. I mean, finally! This is one of the ALL-TIME great action heroes we're talking about here in Mr. Ford, and it's about damn time that he showed up to a movie with his working boots on. There are moments here ... some moments where Ford looks a bit shaky, a bit too soft-spoken, a bit fragile. But then, there are moments, when Ford IS Indiana Jones, is the legend, is the guy who may be a bit older, may be a bit rough around the edges, but damned if he can't kick some ass when the time is right. If nothing else, Indy 4 is worth seeing just to see the return of an icon, and I'm not necessarily referring to the character Indiana Jones, but to Harisson Ford.

Now, the flipside to this is that as much as we want to see Ford, and in turn Indy, kick some ass like old times, Spielberg and Lucas seem intent on doing everything possible to distract us from the movie's real hero. In the past, we always got a goofy sidekick or a damsel in distress, but here, the movie is completely overloaded with extraneous characters and overstuffed plot. And it's not just that. It's that as the movie goes on, we are teased with one or two vintage Indy moments, but there's never that big, climactic moment where Indiana Jones steps up, is the hero, and saves the day. In fact, for much of the movie's climax, Ford stands around, gapes, and does pretty much jack squat.

That's not to say that there aren't great action sequences here. If anything, Spielberg once again proves why he's the all-time king when it comes to directing set-piece action scenes. He just has that total knack for timing his cuts, so that the action moves at just the right clip. While there's nothing here quite as inventive or imaginative as the best scenes in Raiders or TOD, there are at least one or two sequences that are 100% thrilling and exceedingly well put together. A bike scene involving Ford, Shia LeBeuff, and a bunch of KGB agents is a highlight. It's a sequence that feels Indiana Jones through and through. So does the memorable chase through the jungle in which Indy and co engage in vehicular combat with a swarm of bloodthirsty villains - it's as exciting and well-staged as practically any action scene you're likely to see this summer or this year.

The aforementioned scenes are classic Spielberg. But man, there are a couple of bits here that are just laughably goofy, even for the typically-campy Indiana Jones series. I mean, at one point there is a cringe-worthy sequence where Shia suddenly becomes a greaser version of Tarzan, swinging though the jungle alongside a pack of friendly monkeys, who form some kind of instantaneous bond with him and then help him out by ATTACKING the badguys. Are you kidding me? As much tolerance and appreciation as I have for over-the-top action, bits like this really pushed it. Too many scenes felt like tangents meant simply to get a cheap laugh or get in a little bit of nostalgia or simply indulge some idle idea of Lucas or Spielberg. The obligatory "Indy hates Snakes" scene was hamfisted. The opening shots of CGI'd gophers or whatever felt too jokey and out of place. And how about Indy surviving a NUCLEAR BOMB detonation ... by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator? Okay, I'll admit that I'm not an expert on how plausible this is, but the whole nuke scene felt totally extraneous, and felt thrown in just so we could get the obligatory shot of Indy walking away from a giant mushroom cloud, as if to shout "HEY KIDS, this movie takes place in THE FIFTIES, see!". And again, I know we've seen campy, out-there stuff in this series before, but at least in, say, Temple of Doom, there was a kind of loopy internal logic. What makes Crystal Skulls feel so uneven is that, well, the tone is just that - uneven.

I think a lot of that blame can be placed on the script, which purportedly took bits and pieces of numerous drafts written over the years to create one big mashup of ideas and plotlines and dialogue bits. As far as the plot goes, like I said, it's overstuffed. I actually really dug the opening in Area 51. It had a great vibe - mysterious, action-packed, and a great reintroduction to the character of Indiana Jones. It established that he's older, slower, but can still pack a punch. If the whole movie had stuck with the tone established in the opening, we might have had a real classic on our hands. But while the first act had a great mix of cold war-era paranoia and intrigue, it seems like Lucas and Spielberg just had to blow things wide open as the movie went on. By the last act, it felt like we were in another film, hell, another franchise entirely.

Look, I actually think that, in theory, the idea of Indy uncovering the secrets of Area 51, Roswell, etc is a damn cool idea, and makes sense, fits the franchise, and gives a fun sense of historical context. But for the love of god, keep the alien stuff subtle, mysterious, and keep the real focus on Indy. But holy lord, the finale of this movie gets into some crazy new-age psychobabble sci-fi, heavy on CGI and light on coherance. It's a finale in which the goofy, out-there tone of the film gets ratcheted up to eleven. When John Hurt begins to mumble something about the aliens being not from outer space, but from "the space between spaces," the movie has officially gone off the tracks. Part of the problem is that so much of the movie is lacking in real atmosphere ... it's like Spielberg and Lucas go overboard in the finale trying to blow our minds with kewl CGI craziness. Rather than just let us go with Dr. Jones on his journey, let us follow him deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, the complicated MacGuffin of the crystal skulls is explained and expositionally talked about ad nauseum, and it's one of those premises that only gets sillier-seeming the more its talked about. It would have been one thing to have Indy discover extraterrestrial life. But here we're talking mind control, other dimensions, and all kinds of other randomness. It's like a videogame where you have to read a book-sized instruction manual before you can jump in and play. Ideally, the experience should organically draw you in and explain its premise.

The premise alone is enough to make your head spin, but then there's at least a few characters who probably could have been completely cut out of the film. John Hurt is simply annoying as an old archaeologist who has been possessed by the crystal skulls. Hurt is a great actor, so it's especially painful to watch him stumble through the movie babbling, shouting random stuff, and not really contributing anything worthwhile. Same goes for Ray Winstone. He's Indy's friend - no wait, a spy! - no wait, a friend! - oh sorry, just kidding, he was evil all along! Another character that could have been eliminated from the script with no real harm done.

And it's too bad that there's all this clutter, because it takes away from the real fun of the film, which is the dynamic between Indiana, his old flame Marion, and her son (and his?!?), a greaser named Mutt. It's great to see Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood, I only wish she had more to do and had more memorable moments. Her character in Raiders was a true classic, and some of that old spark returns here. She has a few great back-and-forths with Ford, and I give the movie credit in general for giving Ford some vintage one-liners and dialogue exchanges. Snappy dialogue is as much a part of Indy as the hat and whip, so it was nice to see that Indiana had retained his penchant for witty banter. That being said, I wish that the relationship between Indy and Marion was given more time to play out and develop. It had its moments, but had no real arc - it just kind of went from Point A to Point C. Same goes for the father-son relationship. Some great moments in there to be sure. Shia did a decent job - I didn't really buy him as a tough-guy greaser per se, but he had a good chemistry with Ford and handled the action scenes pretty well. Again, I wish more of the film revolved around Indy and his central relationships - however, too many other characters, random asides, and muddled plot points took away from what should have been a more central focus on the man himself.

Meanwhile, Cate Blanchette gave a solid effort as the film's main villain, a heavily-accented KGB operative after the mind-controlling powers inherent in the Skulls. However, I guess I was expecting a bit more from her here? I was hoping for a truly original villain, a great pulp femme fatale ... but in the end, Blanchette was servicable but not particularly memorable. I guess I expected more from the guy who brought us Darth Vader and Jabba the Hutt. There was no great rivalry between her and Jones, and she never really did anything truly vile to make us root against her. When she met her ultimate fate, it was a pretty "meh" moment to me, which is a comment both on her character's relative blandness, and on the muddled circumstances in which she found herself at the film's end.

So let's take a look here - as you can see, the film has its problems. The plot drags and becomes too out-there tonally to fit comfortably in the established Indiana Jones mold. There are bits of goofiness that detract from the overall quality of the action scenes and dialogue. And there are too many ancillary characters and plot points that distract from our main hero, in what should be his triumphant return. But look, in spite of all that, I really did enjoy the film. There were moments when that unique brand of movie magic that Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford bring to the table was on full display. And that is a powerful alchemy. These three know how to combine action and emotion, awe and wonder, character and iconography, like few others do or ever have. This latest Indy flick has those big iconic moments, those scenes where Spielberg, more so than any other director, knows just how long to let the camera linger to soak in the action and the ambiance. It has, of course, the trademark John Williams score - a score that is pretty familiar after all these years but still gets the job done, accentuating each moment of the film with epic aplomb. It's like I said in my opening, with Indiana Jones, the iconography has always overshadowed everything else. And here, for a fourth time, that iconography is on full display, with the added twist that sure, Harrison Ford is older, Indiana Jones is older, but dammit, he's still the man. It's a reassuring and pleasant trope, one that plays on all those warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. As has been said - the original Raiders was Lucas and Spielberg bringing to life their own nostalgia for the movie serials and pulp adventures of old. Now, this is that same duo acting out their nostalgia for their own earlier films. And so, it's something of a testament to the power of that nostalgia, to the power of that iconography, that the movie can entertain, make you smile, and work on a certain level, even if, upon closer inspection, the movie itself in many ways misses the mark.

My Grade: B

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