Saturday, May 24, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

Sure, I haven’t written a column for a year or so. But when Indiana Jones returns to the screen, Captain Mike must return to Troy's Bucket!

So, is it as good as the old ones? No. Has George Lucas crapped on our childhood fantasies like he did with the Star Wars prequels? No, and I think we can all thank Señor Spielbergo for keeping Lucas’ worse impulses in check. “Indiana Jones and the Predictably Stilted Title” is a solid addition to the franchise. It ain’t perfect, though.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.

The good stuff:

The movie starts off great, as any Indiana Jones movie should. Such a delight to see Spielberg return to the sunny widescreen images of his younger, funner days! When Indy finds himself stuck in a desert town populated by mannequins one minute away from a nuclear meltdown, you are reminded instantly that you are in the hands of the maestro of Suburbia on the Edge of the Twilight Zone. Lucas sets up a big shiny ball of “American Graffiti” 1950s nostalgia, and then Spielberg spikes it with an H-bomb. Great stuff! And if seeing that giant warehouse full of mysterious crates doesn’t warm the cockles of your fanboy heart, nothing will.

Harrison Ford is terrific, of course. It’s been a long time since he’s been in a good movie. And sure, at 65 he and his stunt doubles can’t quite pull off the amazing action scenes like they could back in the 80s. But it’s still Indy, and we still love him and his crooked grin.


Cate Blanchett has a ball with her role as an evil psychic Rusky Irina Spalko. Expertly wielding a rapier and even sharper icy blue contact lenses, she’s the most dashing Indy villain thus far, if not the scariest. That title unquestionably goes to Amrish Puri’s unholy man from “Temple of Doom.” To this day, my nightmares are haunted by images of Mola Ram ripping people’s hearts out. That Mayan priest from “Apocalypto” has nothing on Puri’s stare, chant and cackle. He scares me. Irina doesn’t really scare me, but I wouldn’t want to piss her off.


The unfortunately named Shia LeBoeuf (seriously, do his parents hate him?) is better than I had expected. I was a bit apprehensive about Indy having a son, ahem, young adventurous sidekick to do some of the swashbuckling that Harrison Ford just can’t do anymore, but LeBoeuf more or less carries it off. He’s a good actor who obviously had a fantastic time playing this role (who wouldn’t?). Many of the best scenes are of Mutt and Indy verbally sparring in a way that never quite gets corny. If Lucas and Spielberg go on to give him is own franchise of Mutt Williams adventures, I wouldn’t object. He’s way more appealing than, say, Hayden Christensen, although I doubt that he’d ever have become an action hero in the pre-CGI era. He’s more Tom Hanks-ish than… well… Harrison Ford-ish.

The not-so-good stuff:

The other supporting roles have little of the resonance of their 1980s predecessors. When Karen Allen appears as Marion Ravenwood, Indy and the audience beam with affection. Too bad screenwriter David Koepp doesn’t give her much to do. She just kinda shows up, flashes that big smile and drives an amphibious vehicle while the boys do all the fighting. What happened to the Marion who could drink a Sherpa under the table, slug Indy in the jaw, and blast away pesky Nazis with a machine gun? If any character in Crystal Skull has the right to punch (or shoot) evil Irina in the face, it’s Marion. No such luck for her, or us. Ray Winstone’s character could have been completely written out of the movie with no major loss. John Hurt gets to do little more than babble incoherently. Where are Sallah and even Short Round when you need them?


All three of the previous Indy films have at least two brilliantly staged action sequences that linger long in the moviegoer’s imagination. You won’t find one here. Oh, they try. The motorcycle chase through 1950s America is fun, but I kept waiting for Marty McFly to ride by on his makeshift skateboard. Then there’s that big jungle vehicle chase. It’s pretty cool, but nowhere near as thrilling as the desert chase from Raiders, the mineshaft roller coaster ride from Temple of Doom, or the tank rescue from Last Crusade. A lot of the blame for that can be attributed to the schmutzy CGI used to create the jungle. Peter Jackson & Co. did this a lot better in “King Kong.”

And what’s with the toned-down violence? Part of what made the old Indy films so exciting was that they were bloodier and scarier than your typical summer popcorn flick. People got shot, impaled, burned, run over, chopped up, blown up, crushed, whipped, melted, ritualistically eviscerated, sacrificed into pits of lava, and completely decomposed in about 10 seconds flat… stuff to blow the mind of your typical 11-year-old. So bloodless is Crystal Skull that it probably could have gotten through with a PG rating with little complaint from parental watchdog groups. Temple of Doom almost single handedly brought about the PG-13 rating, for God’s sake. Call me a sadist, but I miss the old blood n’ guts.

Let’s face it, folks. The Crystal Skull just ain’t as cool a relic as the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. The Lost Ark unleashed malevolent spirts and melted Nazis. Pick the real Holy Grail and you get you eternal life. Pick the false one, you rot. Choose wisely. If memory serves, the Crystal Skull is a sort of super-duper hard drive that can fry your brain. As a prop, it looks like something you’d find at Spencer's right next to the lava lamps and black light posters. Still it’s not as lame as the Sankara Stones, which I think made fertilizer or something.

The movie doesn’t really make good on Irina’s psychic powers. In point of fact, the Soviets (and Americans) did train psychic soldiers. The filmmakers could have had a lot more fun with this concept. Sadly, it remains an underutilized idea that could have been really cool, particularly with Cate Blanchett playing the role.

And don’t get me started on those goddamn prairie dogs…

The final verdict:

It’s still a good movie to go see on a summer afternoon. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, it feels like a genuine entry into the Indiana Jones series rather than just a massive fundraiser for Lucasfilm Ltd. and its affiliates (not that it isn’t that, though). The story is good enough, the actors are a pleasure to watch, and its energetic fun. It’s an Indiana Jones movie. And that’s a good thing.

See you next year.

3.5 Buckets

3 comments:

Captain Mike said...

I wait a whole year to post, and all I hear are crickets...

I refuse to believe that you guys have no opinions on this one...

Jeff said...

Hi Mikey,

Wow--actually I didn't even realize that it was your post--I thought it was Cody--hehe--I actually didn't really read the post yet cause I haven't seen it yet. George said that we poor lackeys at Paramount Vantage were not worthy enough to see the trade screenings before the release and it's just been tough getting to the theatre at home--so hopefully I'm gonna see it tonight or tomorrow night.

jerry said...

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