Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.29.08


Golden Oldie
The return of Indiana Jones
by Jason Blair

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Koepp. Cinematography, Janusz Kamin´ski. Music, John Williams. Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LeBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone and John Hurt. Paramount Pictures, 2008. PG-13. 124 minutes.

Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the  Crystal Skull

From the opening moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the sensibility was there: The fate of the world might depend upon saving sacred artifacts, but other than the objects themselves, nothing much was sacred. For an action film, Raiders was something brand new, a thoroughly self-mocking adventure comedy that put knife, gun or sword to the humorless and arrogant. Like its hero, Raiders had a pure, unpretentious spirit, one that leaned heavily on adolescent fantasy — an irrational fear of snakes, for example, or a blunt approach to women — when in fact, fedora and whip notwithstanding, Henry “Indiana” Jones was something of a nerd’s nerd. Professor by training, archeological avenger by trade, Indiana Jones is Clark Kent in khakis and a bomber jacket. That made him the right man for the job in Raiders, in which the Nazis sought to possess God’s duffel bag, the Ark of the Covenant. 

But how quickly lightning in a bottle slips free. Inspiration vanished at The Temple of Doom, a viciously bad dream from which its characters never awake. (I still can’t watch Kate Capshaw to this day, so ear-blistering are her screams. Fortunately, I never have to.) So cartoonishly bad is Temple that one hardly expected the triumph of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which wisely enlisted Sean Connery as Indy’s father to help restore the family name. 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a close sibling to The Last Crusade, in that both films rely on intergenerational conflict as a primary source of humor and understanding. The question is, after a 19-year absence, does Indiana still have his legs? Not if you ask Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), the teenage greaser who enlists Indiana to help track down Harold Oxley (John Hurt), a former colleague of Indy’s who vanished after discovering a crystal skull. The year is 1957. Indiana is 58. Mutt’s exasperation at Indy’s age and condition — Mutt calls him “teach” and “old man”— sets up Mutt for a major surprise while simultaneously easing the tension we feel watching Harrison Ford, at 64, back at his old stunts again. And that’s Ford bravely doing his own stunts, by the way, which is saying something, because in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mutt is the least of his troubles. Indiana faces arguably his most diabolical villain yet, the Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a KGB agent intent on using the crystal skull as a mind-control device. 

The Indiana Jones films have always been refreshingly backwards-looking, emphasizing old-fashioned stuntwork and bruising, even pugilistic — as opposed to, say, martial arts — combat. Even elaborate set pieces are made to look otherwise, evoking, somewhat nostalgically, a simpler if not gentler era. All these trademarks remain in Crystal Skull, including the easygoing civility of the first and third installments. And while it’s true that Jason Bourne makes Indiana Jones look like Inspector Clouseau, it’s also true that Crystal Skull makes The Mummy look like a student film. But Crystal Skull hits the skids during a long, flat middle section. While it mostly recovers during a jungle-chase scene that ranks among Spielberg’s best, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that prior to this, mistakes were compounding mistakes. The highly publicized “surprise” return of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is botched completely, as is her revelation about Mutt; what’s more, the film spends an hour chasing Indy’s old friend Oxley — a decent-sounding fellow, but nobody we’ve never met. When he finally appears, mumbling in Mayan, he’s like some wreckage from the LSD years, clutching the crystal skull like a glass football the aliens tossed him.

All in all, it’s a fun ride, albeit a heavily plotted one. With stopovers at Area 51 and El Dorado, this may be the only film in history to fuse E.T. with the Captain from Castile. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is highly — but not overly — referential to the earlier films, a fact that will delight fans of the franchise, which has grown older and more sentimental but still puts on a good show. Old fan or new, there’s treasure here. You just have to dig for it.