Quell your fears. Indiana Jones' latest adventure isn't the disaster you might have feared. In fact, the much-anticipated return of the whip-cracking adventurer isn't bad at all. Nearly 20 years on from '...The Last Crusade', Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford have delivered an enjoyable, entertaining romp which retains much of what made the initial Indiana Jones trilogy such a beloved franchise. Though '...Crystal Skull' isn't the best film in the series, it certainly isn't the worst, and lies streets ahead of the many imitators ('The Mummy'; 'National Treasure'; 'Sahara'; 'The Da Vinci Code') which have followed in the wake of the character's Fedora-clad debut in 1981.
Playing into the advancing years of 65-year-old Harrison Ford, Spielberg and Lucas have aged their central character accordingly. Indiana Jones is 19 years older than when we last set eyes on him during 1938's quest for the Holy Grail. It is now 1957, the height of the Cold War, and much has changed; much, including Jones' enemies. With the Nazis long since dispensed of, Jones is now pitted against the Communists, led by Colonel Irina Spalko (wonderfully played by the beautiful Cate Blanchett).
While 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' showed Hitler as having a deep interest in procuring powerful religious artefacts, the Communists are similarly interested in powerful paranormal artefacts, which will give them "a new frontier in psychic warfare". One artefact they're particularly interested in is the Crystal Skull of the title which, akin to the Grail and the Ark, holds the key to untold knowledge.
Though the central storyline is much too complex and elaborate to get into here, Indiana's role, in short, is to locate and return the Crystal Skull to its legendary South American tomb before the Russians do.
His feisty love interest Marion (Allen), from 'Raiders...', is the only returning character from the previous movies, while he's also joined by new characters in the unreliable Mac (Winstone), fellow academic Professor Oxley (Hurt) and young sidekick Mutt (LaBeouf), a tough, tempestuous kid very much in the mould of the solitary 1950s rebel.
Keeping very much in the tradition of the previous films, '...Crystal Skull' positively follows the blueprint of its predecessors - Jones is as witty as ever; ants replace snakes, bugs and rats; there are numerous entertaining and elaborate stunts; the maps and red line return; and there are puzzles and riddles aplenty of an ancient civilisation to be solved.
But while the formula of the 1980s movies remains, the ingredients have changed and this is likely to pose the biggest disappointment for some fans. While Spielberg and Lucas' first three movies were deeply influenced by 1930s movie serials, the latest draws on all things 1950s and, in cinematic terms, pays homage to the 1950s B-Movie. Like the era, suspicion, double-crossing agents and a booming interest in science-fiction form the key components to '...Crystal Skull'.
All this places the Indiana Jones we know and love in a world we're not entirely familiar with seeing him in, and fans will not be as comfortable with Indy in the 1950s as in the 1930s. It is a world which somehow, for us, feels alien to see him in, especially in some of the early exposition scenes.
In playing into this new, older Indiana Jones, LaBeouf's Mutt is introduced into the series to act as the counterpoint to Ford's lead, ala Sean Connery's father figure in '...The Last Crusade'. Here though, the roles have been reversed. In keeping with Lucas and Spielberg's desire to play into the 'age-issue', Indy is now the butt of the 'gramps' jokes.
This all serves the film fine in parts, but too often Indy is seen to take a backseat to his youthful counterpart. Disappointingly, in playing too realistically into his age, Spielberg and Lucas rob Indy of his heroic, quick-witted characteristics. More often than not it is Mutt who is quickest to act and Indy becomes the rescued rather than the rescuer, just like Connery's character in '...The Last Crusade'.
Those who accept the new setting and advanced characterisation will find much to praise in David Koepp's screenplay. It is watertight, and devoid of the gaping plot holes and clunky dialogue which normally scupper such blockbusters. Some however may miss the humour and lightness of touch which made '...The Last Crusade' the standout of the series.
Spielberg has much fun with the 1950s setting, which allows him a flurry of moments of inspired genius. From the off he bombards us with iconic imagery of the era, from Elvis to Cadillacs, to greasers and Brando. There are also interesting nods to the previous films, as well as an opening scene which sees Spielberg and Lucas unable to resist referencing their respective earliest works, 'Duel' and 'American Graffiti'.
Now veteran filmmakers, both clearly get huge pleasure out of throwing years of acquired skills into a series of smart stunts and immensely entertaining set pieces throughout the film's opening 20 minutes and, particularly, its closing hour, where Spielberg hurls everything into the mix as action sequence upon action sequence unfolds.
Yet, despite these hugely entertaining scenes, '...Crystal Skull' stumbles mid-way through as the film becomes bogged down for 20 minutes or so in convoluted exposition. Here, Spielberg fails to employ the biggest missing ingredient of all throughout '...Crystal Skull' - tension.
Entertaining as the action sequences are, you never really feel Indy is in difficulty apart from perhaps the opening segment. Spielberg sentimentality and schmaltz bleeds into some of the later action scenes and Jones is afforded too many smiles towards Allen's Marian when hell is breaking-out all around him.
What's more, the '...Crystal Skull' is located far too easily and Spielberg fails to inject any of the real cliffhanger ('will he/won't he survive') moments that helped propel two of the previous three films. At no point does Indy just manage to roll out of the trap door before it closes, so to speak.
Feverish expectation, nostalgia and the fact that Ford (though very capable in the role) is past his prime to play the character meant that 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' was never going to excel 'Raiders...' or '...The Last Crusade'. Those expecting the greatest Indy adventure of all will leave disappointed.
That said, Indy 4 remains an entertaining, old-school, rip-roaring yarn. It's not without its flaws, and not great cinema, but boy it is really good fun.
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