Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) / Action-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running time: 126 min
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Cameo: Ernie Reyes Jr.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: David Koepp
Almost a relic worthy of putting into a museum himself, Indiana Jones (Ford, Firewall) comes back after nearly 20 years to the big screen in this just-for-fun adventure to please the fans and, of course, score a big, fat paycheck for Lucas, Spielberg and Ford. It's hard to contain the fanboy in me, but I'll do my best, though some of you will look at the high scores I give to the Star Wars prequels and accuse me of not being able to (I could argue that those that absolutely HATE the prequels are much more demonstrative of not putting aside their own fanboy and fangirl feelings, as I expect will be the case with this film). It takes time get used to the fact that Indiana Jones is now an old man, which is difficult to do with a character so iconic, but after a few scenes pass and we accept the idea, it delivers all of the goods anyone would expect in terms of thrills, chills, humor, adventure and intrigue.
The style of the film is on par with the previous adventures, though the genre expands more into a science fiction realm (Spielberg is revisiting a few themes from Close Encounters here) when exploring the nature of the titular skull, not to mention the 1950s setting. The bad guys have changed from Nazis to Commies, but their prevailing strong-armed attitude of taking over the world with their own agenda remains the same. His main nemesis is now a woman, a dangerous and ruthless Russian (think "lesbian dominatrix") named Irina Spalko (Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal), who kidnaps our hero in order to force him to find an object he has found some time ago in the same vast warehouse we once saw the Ark rolled into. Indy gets away, later joined by a young greaser named Mutt Williams (LaBeouf, Transformers), who has important information for him regarding an old colleague, Oxley. Both end up on the run, finding their way to ancient Incan territory in Peru, where they find the crystal skull the Russians are seeking, which appears to have strange, otherworldly powers.
Screenwriter David Koepp (Zathura, War of the Worlds), one of many who tinkered with an agreeable script for this film, said he wanted to make a movie that wasn't as dark as The Temple of Doom or as light as The Last Crusade. He succeeded, but this fourth entry is still much more like entries two and three than it is like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Temple's "Anything Goes" stunt quotient may actually be exceeded, while Last Crusade's "family values" subtext and character interplay continue to be explored. One thing that isn't as high is the level of humor, though the film has its moments. Even the darker second film had plenty of humor throughout, but Skull's attempts are in the realm of mild comic relief rather than contriving scenes of out-and-out gags. It's also the first film in the series that probably necessitates watching the earlier films to appreciate fully, with its recurring characters and references to Indy's departed family and friends (Connery, who played Henry Jones I, has permanently retired from acting, and though tempted, turned down appearing in this film -- I guess just one drink from the Holy Grail isn't enough for his character's immortality), so do yourself a very big favor and, if you haven't seen them, or have forgotten the details, watch the other three films prior.
Although I am scoring this higher than Temple of Doom, there are still elements I wish I could change. Perhaps the major one is the way Irina Spalko is portrayed. Indy has encountered his share of villains, but never quite this cartoonish before, with her faux Russkie accent, jet-black do and idealized attitude with no signs of any depth behind the external appearance. Another is that Indiana Jones, though he might show signs of aging on his face, definitely doesn't in action. CGI-enhanced feats (some all too obvious) and fighting keep us from getting as much into the action as we had previously. He also no longer bleeds or gets seriously injured, finally succumbing to the superhero status he only occasionally dabble with on previous adventures. If there's no danger in anyone getting hurt, there's not really much suspense. We appreciate the action scenes for their panache, but they don't get the adrenaline up as much as they should.
Karen Allen (The Perfect Storm, The Sandlot) returns for the first time since Raiders to her role as Marion, and though over a decade has passed since Jones apparently left her at the altar, it takes all of one line on his part, that none of the women he's been involved with could replace her, for her to fall in goo-goo eyed love all over again. If not for the fact that it feels right for these two characters to be together more so than any other possibility, I'm willing to go along with the shortcuts and short shrift given to her characterization for the inevitable happy ending for both characters, and the movie. I guess that basically says it all about one's ability to like this film. We love Indiana Jones, and love Ford in the role, so much so that, as long as the movies are in the spirit of what we've come to expect over the years, it's a slam dunk in terms of entertainment.
Honestly, if they had this same script and had cast someone else in the role, I'd probably think it was dreadful, which says a great deal about Ford's ability to carry a movie with his presence and immense, yet subtle charisma. Perhaps if there were also five other Indiana Jones films that were made in the 19 years after The Last Crusade, I'd sit and nitpick through the many flaws this film has and why no sequel will ever match up to Raiders, but I can't. I went to the film to have a good time, and it gave me everything I could want.
The end of the film keeps the door open for the possibility of another sequel, and given that Spielberg and Lucas originally had intended to make five Indiana Jones adventures, perhaps they just might. After that, only time will tell, though LaBeouf's character leaves an even wider door open for further options down the road, which the filmmakers acknowledge with a very telling final scene showing that he is primed to wear the fedora, but not just yet. I could criticize the film for being shallow in its story and characterizations, but it's been that way all along really, and I could gripe that it goes way over the top at times, but it's been that way all along as well. It's all in keeping with the nature of things -- the clothes may wear, and the body may grow old, but the hat still fits, so let the man wear it.
©2008 Vince Leo