Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's not the years,'s the mileage

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
2 ½ stars out of 4

It’s been a long time since Harrison Ford put on that fedora and started playing Indiana Jones. I remember watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the theater and having to turn around and face the back of my chair during the scene when the Nazi’s faces melt off, because I was too young to be exposed to such gratuitous violence. I don’t know what my date thought at the time, but what did I care? She didn’t pay for the tickets.

Seriously, my biggest concern going into “Indy 4” was that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would spend way too much time in nostalgia mode, making cute “old man” jokes and inside references, and leaving the fans with the action-adventure equivalent of “Blues Brothers 2000”. Or “Chips 2000”. Or “Weekend at Bernies II”. Obviously Ford wasn’t going to look the same as he did in the first three movies, but I didn’t want to be reminded of it unnecessarily. Don’t tell me he’s an old man; let me figure it out on my own.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. If there is one triumph in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, it’s that the hero doesn’t come off as a fuddy-duddy. Chalk it up to plastic surgery, stuntmen, or a costume that doesn’t require rock-hard abs, but Harrison Ford pulls off his role just fine.

So do most of his peers. Along the way, the Ford Posse picks up his old girlfriend from the first movie, a sidekick son he never knew he had, and some old war buddy who was never in any of the first movies, and they all do a good job of playing their roles without being a distraction. Unfortunately, Denholm Elliot, who played Marcus Brody, died several years ago, so his character is reduced to campus memorials that Indy runs past when being chased by bad guys. Even more unfortunately, there’s no way to bring back the best supporting character in the first films—Belloch—because the Lost Ark of the Covenant made his head explode in the first movie.

As for the aforementioned bad guys, well, that’s where I start to have problems. Indy 4 is set in the mid-1950’s, so obviously Indy can’t fight the Nazi’s anymore. That’s too bad, because one of the big reasons “Temple of Doom” suffered was because Indy wasn’t fighting Hitler. Well, that and because they thought it would be cool to have a long banquet scene that came off like a “Fear Factor” segment. Indiana Jones just needs to be fighting Nazis. The Soviet Commies in “Crystal Skull” kind of look like Nazis, but they still don’t carry the same “ultimate bad guy” vibe that makes it feel morally justified to, say, throw them in front of speeding trucks.

Sadly, “Crystal Skull” resembles “Temple of Doom” a lot more than it does “Raiders” or “Last Crusade”, mostly in terms of action believability. Or rather, unbelievability. This may sound crazy, but one of the great things about “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was that as insane as all of its stunts were—even Indy climbing under the truck—they were still believable in their own crazy way. But Indy and the gang going on a mine car chase in “Temple of Doom” wasn’t believable at all. And the action in “Crystal Skull” leans towards “Temple of Doom” more often than it doesn’t. The irony of this is that the whole series was supposed to be a tribute to those over-the-top Saturday afternoon serials in the first place, but “Raiders” was so solid it raised the bar too high.

My biggest gripe has to do with the story itself. The basic premise is that Indy is in South America looking for a magic Crystal Skull. That’s the only way you can make the story sound simple. Because once you start adding in the other plot concepts, things get confusing fast. All the Indy movies have the same basic premise: Bad Guy is searching for ancient artifact X. If Bad Guy gets ancient artifact X, he or she conquers the world, so Indy must get ancient artifact X before Bad Guy, preferably while kicking Bad Guy’s trash along the way. This holds true with “Crystal Skull”, only when Indy starts talking about the archeological mumbo-jumbo, it’s not cool like in “Raiders”. It’s just confusing. You eventually start to tune it out like you’re watching an “Ocean’s Eleven” movie, just biding your time until it’s time to execute the plan.

All this leads up to the climactic third act, which is where most people get off the ride with this movie, including me. Without giving too much away, let me make a simple observation: every Indiana Jones movie deals with some element of the supernatural, but it is always an earth-bound supernatural. Old Testament supernatural. New Testament supernatural. Mysterious rocks that make plants grow supernatural. “Crystal Skull” tries to turn Indiana Jones from an action-adventure into science fiction, and I’m not sure I like the idea.

Don’t get me wrong—“Indy 4” is a lot of fun, and totally worth seeing. It could have been really bad, and it isn’t. But it could have been a lot better. If you want to put a positive spin on the experience, remember this: seeing this movie reminds you of how good the first one really is.

“Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” is rated PG-13 for really violent punches that sound a lot louder than they should, some swearing bits, the disappointment of having a leading lady that’s in her 50’s, and action sequences that come from the “Post-CGI Era” George Lucas.