Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Welcome Back, Indy

Last night, I had an experience that I never thought I’d get to have. I saw an Indiana Jones movie in the theater. Nineteen years after The Last Crusade, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford have reunited to bring their fedora-wearing, globe-trotting, death-defying professor of archaeology back to the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Fans, including myself, have been somewhat skeptical. After all, this isn’t quite the Indy we remember – he’s noticeably older, he’s in the 1950’s rather than the 30’s or 40’s, and as a result he’s fighting Russian commies, not the evil Nazis of previous outings. Couple those facts with the nature of the artifact he’s hunting this time (I won’t spoil it as other reviewers have, but let’s just say it fits the flavor of the era) and you’ve got a film that runs the danger of feeling a little silly. Well, let me assure you, it doesn’t feel a little silly. It feels a lot silly. And it’s a blast.

In an effort to stay as spoiler-free as possible, I’ll just give you the bare essentials of the plot. Indy (Harrison Ford) and pal George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone) are caught in the middle of yet another treasure hunt, this time looking for the titular crystal skulls, ancient South American artifacts rumored to grant the power of mind control. Drawn by the skull’s military potential are Russian agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her team of commie troops. On the other side is Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), a motorcycle-riding greaser looking for his father figure – an old professor named Harold Oxley (John Hurt) who is an old colleague of Indy’s. Mutt seeks out Indy to help him save Oxley, whose life is in mortal danger because of his discovery of one of the skulls. It doesn’t take long for the red lines to start streaking across the maps, whisking us way to exotic locales from the Nevada desert to the Peruvian jungle. Along the way, we’re treated to quicksand, a nuclear explosion, and a jeep chase through the jungle that’s one of the most inspired action sequences in recent memory. Indy even runs into old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and gets the chance to sort out some relationships from his past.

Let me give you all possible warning up front: if you are the type of person who will watch an incredible action sequence in a movie and remark, “That’s impossible. No way,” then stay the heck away from this movie. The film is absolutely ridiculous. It has more than one of those moments. It has more than ten of those moments. As I walked out of the theater, a couple guys in front of us were having a discussion about the impossibility of vine-swinging at high velocity in the jungle chase scene. I really wanted to tell them, “Dude, you picked the wrong movie.” Trying to dissect the plausibility of an Indiana Jones movie makes about as much sense as meditating on the metaphysical implications of Dora the Explorer. I’ll admit, I spent the first twenty minutes or so of the movie seriously questioning if Lucas and Spielberg shouldn’t have just left Indy in the past. However, at that point, I simply told myself, “If the Ark of the Covenant can nuke Nazis and the Holy Grail can heal bullet holes, then why the heck not?” Of course the movie is ridiculous! That’s the point! Once I determined in my mind to just go along for the ride, the movie was terrific. The film was perfectly cast. Harrison Ford’s charm goes without saying, and Cate Blanchett is the epitome of camp with her over-the-top Russian accent and sinister bob hairstyle. She’s the type of villain you actually want to survive as long as possible so that the film won’t be deprived of her presence. I had my doubts about Shia LeBeouf taking on a rough-and-tumble role, but he was the perfect choice. Get used to seeing this guy around, because he’s really good. John Hurt provides comic relief as the two-French-fries-short-of-a-happy-meal professor Oxley without overdoing it. Winstone brings a nice cockney charm to his role, which plays perfectly to his complicated relationship with Indy. However, it’s Karen Allen who steals the show. As soon as Marion appears onscreen, it feels like she never left. Allen brings a fire and irrepressible charm to the screen, and her banter with Ford instantly transports us back to the wonder of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. The movie is visually stunning – from the jaw-dropping action sequences and effects to the subtle yet captivating 50’s style lighting and cinematography. The film has wit and charm to boot, including a pitch-perfect bit in the closing seconds involving Indy’s hat that will have audiences leaving the theater with a smile.

I’ve struggled since the moment I left the theater last night with how I’d star this movie. It’s always hard to rate a franchise that I love, since I want to give it four stars but don’t feel completely right giving Indy the same rating I gave other, much deeper four-star films. Does Crystal Skull have the significance and profundity of Saving Private Ryan or The Passion of the Christ? Nope. It’s hard-pressed to match Transformers on that front. Does it have the emotional resonance of Road to Perdition or Million Dollar Baby? Nope again. Does it have the brilliant plot twists of Signs? The deadpan writing of Juno? The artistic beauty of Hero? No, no, and no. How could it possibly be deserving of the same four-star review then? What the heck – because it’s really, really fun. - **** (out of 4)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.

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