Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones
Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko
Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood
Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams
Ray Winstone as ‘Mac’ George McHale
John Hurt as Professor Oxley
Jim Broadbent as Dean Charles Stanforth
Igor Jijikine as Dovchenko
It’s been nearly two decades since the last “Indiana Jones” film and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think the time for it has passed, that everyone involved has grown past their ability to do this sort of thing. Harrison Ford is in his 60’s now and there’s just no way Indiana can run around chasing Nazis and hunting down religious artifacts like he used to. If the part’s not going to be recast than the film’s going to have to go through some sort of update. Lot’s of stuff can happen in twenty years and it’s a new world now, both for Indiana and the filmmakers behind him. The question is, do they still have the magic?
The good news is it updates just fine. The Gestapo has been replaced with the KGB, and the happy go lucky adventure days of old have gotten a little darker as Red Scare paranoia takes hold. And Indy’s still out there, fighting the good fight, as he and partner Mac (Ray Winstone) are unceremoniously dumped out of the back of a car and onto the tarmac of the Air Force’s top secret testing center Area 51 in the opening minutes of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
“Indiana Jones” films are known, as much as for anything else, for their crackerjack opening sequences. They tend to be so good in fact, that it almost doesn’t matter how good the rest of the film is. They play as the climactic sequence to another, previous film that doesn’t have to bother with introduction and setup, but simply jump right into the good stuff. “Crystal Skull” is no exception, as Indy races through the warehouse where the government keeps all it’s secrets (as seen in the first Indiana Jones film “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), by foot, car, and rocket sled, dodging bullets, swords and even atomic bombs and making a good case to be enshrined as a first class symbol of Americana. It is without question the best section of the film. “Crystal Skull” is worth seeing just for the introduction alone.
After that, though, things slow down quite a bit. “Crystal Skull” has had some notorious script problems over the years, going through a large number of writers, and they still haven’t all been ironed out. Frequent Spielberg collaborator David Koepp (“Spider-Man,” “War of the Worlds”) was brought on board to fashion a finished script out of the various drafts by producer George Lucas, and later Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”) among many others. The finished product has a lot of the weaker ticks that show up in his adventure films (especially “The Shadow” and “Jurassic Park”), particularly a preponderance of exposition and weak climaxes. The last one is a real problem as it’s often negatively complimented by director Steven Spielberg’s own inability to decide on an ending, a problem that’s plagued a lot of his recent work.
That said, Spielberg is probably just too good of a filmmaker to make an out and out bad movie. Even his weaker efforts like the “Jurassic Park” films or, it must be said, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” have moments of greatness, even when they don’t always add up to anything, and his newest film is a good sight better than any of those.
As it turns out, Dr. Jones was part of the scientific team that investigated the strange goings on at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, and now the Russians led by the beautiful but deadly Doctor Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) are after him. Like several of Indy’s other antagonists, Spalko is played up as his opposite number. She is a great believer in and student of the paranormal — unlike Indiana who isn’t particularly interested in the supernatural, he just keeps stumbling onto it — with her own non-standard weapon of choice, in her case, a fencing rapier. She tends to, largely, get used to deliver the film’s exposition, but it’s still obvious Blanchett’s having a great deal of fun as the villain, and it does fit her character. Her goal in life is know everything and at the moment, she wants to know what Indy knows about the alleged spaceship crash and how artifacts taken from there relate to the famous Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull and the old legends of El Dorado, the lost city of gold. It’s actually pretty good idea for the background to a treasure hunt. Replacing the pulp fiction B-movie concerns of the ’30s with the sci-fi B-movie concerns of the ’50s perfectly fitting in with the updated feel of the film and its underlying themes of time moving on. If only they let more of it happen on screen, instead of explaining about it all the time.
To be fair, “Crystal Skull” is no “DaVinci Code” or “National Treasure.” While there are some riddles to be figured out, there are no ancient conspiracies or mind-numbing treatises on fake ancient history. The filmmakers do keep things spiced up with a good chase and/or some fisticuffs every so often and if it isn’t quite the thrill-a-minute ride the earlier films could be, it’s still gets the job done in its own way. Instead of the arid Middle East, Indiana and company spend most of their time in the jungles of Central America. And it’s quite a company.
It always seemed like Indiana as a character worked best when he was on his own, having to rely on his own wits and luck. That’s one of the things that makes the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” so good, and yet in each successive sequel, more and more people are attached to Indy, dragging the pace and excitement down, and never has he had as large a caravan as he does in “Crystal Skull.” Besides Mac he’s also carting around a crazed old colleague (John Hurt), ex-flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and Shia LaBeouf as Mutt, a young greaser in straight up Marlon Brando, “Wild One” vein, though it’s readily apparent LaBeouf is no Brando and doesn’t really emanate the aura of toughness it seems like he’s supposed to. They keep stacking up like clowns in a clown car, as Indiana keeps bumping into new characters every time he needs one to move the story along, regardless of what his actual choices as a character are. It must be said, B-movies have always done that sort of thing, but on the other hand, Indiana Jones made its bones by being the B-movie that was better than a B-movie, and Koepp really should know better. It also doesn’t help for a great deal of character development. Indiana can handle that sort of thing just by dent of having been around for a while, but it hurts the side characters. The only one any sort of real attention is given to is Mutt, who is probably the weakest character in the lot. He’s more than a little annoying, intentionally so but intentional annoyance doesn’t go down any better than the accidental kind, and it’s easy to get tired of him long before the film ends. For the record, in my case it was when he started swinging through the trees like Tarzan. Sitting through an entire movie with him would probably be unbearable.
For all that, it’s still a rollicking good ride, with several excellent set pieces, and if none are as good as the intro, the car chase in the jungle tries really hard to equal it and almost succeeds. It uses everyone to great effect and works on multiple planes of action without ever feeling jumbled or confusing. Spielberg really shows his mastery with it passing on huge sweeping camera movies or handheld cameras and huge effects. It’s just people doing things shot simply and understandably, focused on the substance of the action rather than the style of it, and despite going on for quite some time it never feels its length. It underscores the huge difference between a master and a wannabe. They say the last lesson a master learns is simplicity, and that certainly shows here.
Unfortunately it also showcases the film’s one big problem. It is essentially the climax of the film, it’s the last time the heroes and villains come into conflict in any real way, even though the movie itself goes on for another 30 minutes. Thirty minutes that are hindsight are nothing more than an extended dénouement, which a movie like “Crystal Skull” can’t really handle. And it’s because character actions are largely unconnected to the events of the world the characters inhabit. It’s as if the plot was decided on first, and then the characters were just dropped into it. Indiana could have sat at home drinking tea for the whole film, and it wouldn’t have changed what happens to the Russians in any way. Certainly some elements, elements that are important to the characters themselves, would have been different. But in the resolution of the main conflict around which the entire story revolves, the protagonists do not play any real role. That is a tremendous oversight that really hurts the film, and Spielberg, Koepp and Lucas really should have known better. It doesn’t kill it, but it does hurt it, because the climax is so weak.
There’s a piece of common wisdom that says you can make a weak film but if it has a great ending people will like it because the ending is what everyone most remembers. It sends them out on a high. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is the exact opposite of that. It has a fantastic opening, and then gradually falls off and falls off before eventually sputtering to a stop. It’s still good, the people making it are just too good at what they do, but it’s far from fantastic. Still, if anyone was worried that Ford was just too old to put the hat back on, “Crystal Skull” should lay that to rest. There’s still life in the old franchise yet.