Monday, May 26, 2008

New Indiana Jones - is it worth it?

Harrison Ford and his movie-making cohorts are back with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Was it worth it? After 19 years, hardly anything would be. Can anything live up to such hype as this movie has received? Probably not.

But hype is overrated anyway, and the strength of the Indiana Jones series is that it was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place. Doing so will damage your enjoyment of any of the films, especially this one, outright. But if you're looking for escapist adventure, it's hard to top the fedora-clad one. A terrible Indiana Jones flick is still better than most "good" movies.

First, the bad stuff about Crystal Skull; I want to get it out of the way.

The most obvious issue is the casting. Because so much time has passed in the Indy universe, beloved characters have come and gone. The film takes place in 1957, which means the days of Nazi intrigue and lost continents are long past. This element of change helps the movie tremendously, but also requires reams of exposition that bog down the action at times. After all, Indiana's been up to a lot, and we need a reason to care about the new "old friend" next to him.

More so than any previous film, Crystal Skull introduces a flurry of new characters. That's typical for an Indiana Jones flick, of course, but some of these new faces are surrogates for past participants. In particular, Dean Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) is a virtual placeholder for Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott, who died in 1992). Ray Winstone's Mac is a Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) of sorts. And while neither of those new characters would necessarily act the same way as their predecessors, they're similar enough to be the Coy and Vance of this film. No one could replace Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr., and even Connery himself wasn't going to try.

The glut of new characters threatens to crowd out Indy at times, particularly in later scenes. Professor 'Ox' Oxley (John Hurt), Jones' former colleague that we've never heard of before, has gone catatonic by staring into the eyes of the Crystal Skull. Only Indiana can decipher his cryptic Mayan communication, a plot point bordering on overplayed by the time it matters most.

Another gripe: Despite Steven Spielberg's admirable (and mostly effective) attempts to lean on traditional stunts and special effects, some CGI-enhanced parts channel the more ridiculous aspects of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. While the Indiana Jones series has never suffered from a total adherence to reality, some moments in Crystal Skull do bring the term, "jump the shark" to mind.

Despite all of this, however, Crystal Skull is a worthy entry into the Indiana Jones canon. It benefits from the time gap to breathe new life into its aging hero. Early on, Indy - on the run from Soviet agents stealing government swag - stumbles into what he thinks is a small desert neighborhood. He barrels into a house straight out of Leave it to Beaver, complete with Howdy Doody happily blaring on the television. Even before he realizes the people on the couch are dummies and that the area is about to get nuked to oblivion as an experiment, Jones seems hopelessly (and hilariously) lost in the modern suburban kitchen. He's just as out-of-place in the Happy Days malt shop in a subsequent scene, where a classic '50s rumble breaks out. It's hard to imagine Indy uttering the name "Archie" or asking a girl to go with him to the sock-hop. It's equally hard not to marvel at seeing such an icon so out of his element. After three films set in the 1930s, Spielberg has shattered the mold in the best possible way.

There is a plot, involving Dr. Jones' firing from the university and a subsequent run-in with a greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), which leads him into the search for a sacred artifact (hint: it's in the title) and his mom, who turns out to be the long-missed Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Along the way, the duo run into some other friends, enemies and combinations thereof, Indy gets into trouble with Cate Blanchett, stuff gets destroyed, big magnets attract stuff, ancient monuments come to life, rivals swordfight on top of speeding cars, they fall down massive waterfalls, everyone winds up on the world's largest ant pile, you know, the usual. It's action, and that's what matters. And what has always mattered.

Will there be another sequel? It's hard to say. But if The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles is to be believed, Indy was still kicking into his 90s. That's a lot of history to mine, and if anyone can make Dr. Jones in a disco or an adventure with a grunge-clad grandson palatable, it's Harrison Ford. If not, we'll always have the memories. Thanks, guys.

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