Sunday, May 25, 2008


Written by David Koepp
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen and Cate Blanchett

Mutt Williams: For an old man, you’re not bad in a fight. What are you? 80?

The latest Indiana Jones installment opens with an impromptu drag race in the middle of the Nevada desert. (It actually opens with a silly, fake gopher making a face at the camera but that is far too bizarre for me to comment on.) A car full of teenagers, looking 50’s fresh, pass a number of army trucks full of troops. When they get to the front of the line, they encourage the army driver across from them to step on the gas and they’re off. In many ways, this opening sequence announces the tone for what’s to come in Steven Spielberg’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. The image is crisp; the camera movement is slick; and the thrills are swept up into momentary exhilaration. But then, as the cavalcade turns off the road and the teenagers continue on into the desert, it becomes clear that the entire sequence was speeding toward nothing at all.

It is 1957 and nearly twenty years since Indy’s last adventure, mirroring the same amount of time between the last film and this one. Both Indy and the man who first incarnated him in 1981, Harrison Ford, are in their 60’s now. Still, as Indy hops from towering to teetering crate in an army hanger and swings into a truck with his trusty whip secured against the rafters, it’s clear that his face may be weathered but this old guy’s still pretty spry. Indy has managed to get himself caught by the KGB, led by Cate Blanchett in a razor sharp, black bob as Irina Spalko. She needs his expertise to find a body that she hopes will then lead her to a crystal skull. Legend has it, as it tends to in Indiana movies, that the one who returns the crystal skull to its proper resting place will have infinite knowledge bestowed upon them. This would give this person the ability to know the thoughts of every person on earth and the ability to manipulate these thoughts. I can barely control my own thoughts so I doubt I could handle that kind of responsibility but the Russians seem pretty convinced that they would do just fine.

Indy also has a new adventuring partner, 21-year-old Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Casting Shia as the rebel without a cause (I may have swooned every time he unnecessarily ran his comb through his perfect pompadour) may have been an easy decision to ensure a younger crowd or to take some o the stunt pressure off Ford but either way, it works. As usual, Shia brings an unimposing depth to popcorn fare and, in this case, some great chemistry between him and Ford. Bringing in fresh blood or modernizing in general can be tricky when you’re also trying to honour tradition. The dynamic between Indy & Mutt (as well as the return of Karen Allen as Indy’s first squeeze, Marion Ravenwood) allows for the cheesy one-liners to flourish but the loss of Douglas Slocombe as cinematographer (he died in 2004) has practically removed the classical Hollywood style that made some of the more ridiculously implausible Indy moments bearable, if not campily enjoyable. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, is certainly a genius but the only classical element remaining is a soft focus to keep Indy looking as young as possible. The result is at times breathtaking but fundamentally less authentic.

There is no question that Indiana Jones is a cinematic icon, from his hat and whip to John Williams’s triumphant score. The danger with reviving the character after such a long period is that you run the risk of tarnishing one of Hollywood’s most celebrated action heroes. If you’re going to take that risk, there had better be a good reason. The premise and ultimate conclusion of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL leave you with some brilliant imagery, wavering levels of excitement and a nagging question as to whether this was the best they could come up with after twenty years. Indy does entertain with relatively little disappointment but while his latest adventure doesn’t kill the franchise, it does nothing for it either. Anyway, Spielberg best not wait another twenty years before the next installment. If he does, Indy will be a lot more likely to be cracking hips than whips.

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