Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reel To Reel: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Well, Indy, at least you haven't forgotten how to show a lady a good time.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Gunplay, Fistplay, Swordplay, Some Scary Moments

Meeting up with Indiana Jones again is like visiting an old friend you haven't seen since high school. But while you were in school, he was in his prime. Now he's older, grayer, and probably rusty with that whip and revolver. Like Rocky Balboa, you know this guy needs to retire sometime. Yet Professor Jones can still fight like a champ and wriggle out of danger while digging up anything you need -- that perfect combination of adventurous mind and machismo who influenced National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, Sahara, and The Mummy films, among others. Ironically, it also seems to borrow from those films -- I'll let you guess which ones. Yet Raiders Of The Lost Ark borrowed too, drawing from old cliffhanger serials as it perfected the modern big-budget action flick. So forgive me if nothing seems particularly innovative, except for this chapter's sci-fi twist.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens in the 1950's, where the Soviets have replaced the Nazis as chief antagonists. The reds disguise and shoot their way into Nevada's Area 51, looking for that rumored alien body from that rumored UFO crash, which is quite neatly hidden (along with the Lost Ark) in a government warehouse. A trunk pops open. Ta-da, there's Indy (Ford) and his battered fedora, captured and forced to find the body with his buddy Mac (Winstone). And over here, meet our new villainess, KGB agent Irina Spalko (Blanchett). She's Stalin's favorite psychological warrior, although she looks like she walked out of a goth ball at Tucson's Club Congress.

Indy does what we expect, fighting his way out and also surviving an atomic bomb blast in a self-parodying way. Perhaps the filmmakers are laying pipe for the next sequel: Radioactive Jones and The Day After. But before you can say "half-life," Dr. Jones is back at his day job and under suspicion for getting too close to the commies. A job change is required, but as Indy rolls off for the east coast, young greaser Mutt (LaBeouf) rolls up in his Harley, begging for help.

One of Indy's old acquaintances, "Ox" Oxley (Hurt) has been kidnapped while seeking a powerful crystal skull from an ancient civilization in South America. Worse, Mutt's mother is also in captivity. But Ox has left behind a cryptic clue in a letter -- Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code? No, more like Raiders of the Lost Skull after our hero is re-teamed with Marion Ravenwood (Allen), the fiesty ex-flame sorely missed since the first film. (Didn't you just love it when she said, "Herr Mac?") Not surprising, the Russkies want that skull too.

So now I get to the big question: has Indy aged gracefully or deteriorated into the gettin'-too-old-for-this-stuff phase? Ford's character seems to talk more and whip less. Maybe I missed him shooting anything with that revolver. Once again, dialogue economy is an issue with anything connected to George Lucas since Return Of The Jedi: these people just talk too much in all the wrong places. Yet Indiana doesn't overextend himself with hot-dogging stunts, many of which are farmed out to Mutt in what may be the basis of yet another franchise. Marion, of course, hasn't forgotten any heroic skills.

This latest film doesn't play like a conclusion, and the last scene certainly leaves the door open. If it is indeed the final chapter, it's one that leaves Dr. Jones still on top of his game. George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg obviously knew their limits and stayed within the lines. That's hard to imagine this team doing, especially for the Indiana Jones saga, but they pulled it off. Yeah, Indy's gettin' old. But he's staying wise.

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