Thursday, May 29, 2008

Indiana Jones and the just good enough sequel

I wish I could say that “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was a excellent film-going experience, but I can’t do that in good conscience. I am recommending it, but with qualifiers.

It is great to see Harrison Ford back in the fedora and cracking the whip, if only for the nostalgic memories of the previous three adventures. Ford, at 65, still makes a viable hero and slips back into the Indy duds with great ease.

There’s a fabulous opening sequence set in a government warehouse, in which Indy and a former war buddy (Ray Winstone, “Beowulf”) are forced to help a group of Russians led by Cate Blanchett (“I’m Not There”) find an artifact. Since 19 years have passed since the last film, the same time has passed in Indy’s timeline, setting this new adventure in the 1950s and replacing the Nazis with Russians as the stock villains of choice.

This opening has the right tone of humor, action and smarts and gets the Indy character right. It is great fun and you hope it is the set up for more to come, but something goes off. As the film continues it feels less like an "Indiana Jones" movie and more like one of its imitators.

The muddled plot involves Indy teaming with a young greaser named Mutt (Shia LeBeouf, “Transformers”) to rescue their mutual acquaintance Professor Oxley (John Hurt) and Mutt’s mother and Indy’s former flame Marion (Karen Allen). Oxley and Marion are lost in the jungles of South America in search of a magical crystal skull that if returned to the mythic El Dorado will unleash a supreme power. Naturally the Russians are after this power too.

The plot is silly and corny, but so were the plots of the first three installments of the franchise. The “Indiana Jones” films were never about plot. The story was always just there to string together a succession of extraordinary action-set pieces. “Crystal Skull” follows in that tradition perfectly.

In addition to the opening, there are two other action sequences that are well worth the price of admission. The first involves Mutt and Indy on a motorcycle being pursued by Russian agents through the Yale campus. Like the opening sequence, this chase has the spirit right and is presented cleverly with a good dose of excitement.

The same goes for a more elaborate chase in the South American jungle. Among other things, it features LeBeouf and Blanchett dueling from separate vehicles speeding along parallel roads. This is some thrilling, smile-inducing stuff. Director Steven Spielberg is an old pro at escapist fun and few are better at delivering fun action with imagination and flare.

The series’ action was always spectacular, but what helped make the films special were the interpersonal relationships in between the exhilarating set pieces. There was a snap in the dialogue to match the snap of the whip. Whether it was Indy’s relationship with Marion in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or Indy’s relationship with Sean Connery as his dad in “Last Crusade,” the Indy films always featured sharp dialogue and well drawn relationships.

And that’s where “Crystal Skull” fizzles. This shortcoming falls squarely on screenwriter David Koepp, who worked with Spielberg previously on “Jurassic Park.” At some point he loses the essence of the Indy character and relies on cheap one-liners instead of developing actual relationships.

A lot of the dialogue that is supposed to have zing feels stilted and forced. There are isolated one-liners that earn a chuckle, but much of the dialogue seems one degree removed. It is great to see Allen back in the series, but after a few barely barbed exchanges with Ford she isn’t asked to do much. LeBeouf is an able sidekick and a likable screen presence, but his chemistry with Ford is largely wasted with lame dialogue filled with old man jokes.

The rest of the cast fill their underwritten roles nicely and give their characters more color than on the page. Blanchett is given little to work with as the piece’s primary villain, but she does wonders just with her eyes. Her glares are almost as spectacular as some whole action sequences. Hurt is stuck in a role where he’s crazy for most of his screen time, but, being the consummate veteran that he is, he makes it work.

This latest incarnation of “Indiana Jones” does entertain, but it will also disappoint, simply because the standards were set so high by its predecessors. It is comparable to “Lost World,” Spielberg’s sequel to “Jurassic Park,” which entertained, but was no “Jurassic Park.” “Crystal Skull” is no “Raiders." It isn’t even a “Temple of Doom.”

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