Monday, May 26, 2008

‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

The new “Indiana Jones” installment (no, I’m not typing that unwieldy title again), is the kind of movie I need to see twice before making final judgment. Much like George Lucas’ other long-awaited project, 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace” (what is it with this guy and bad monikers?), “Indy 4” has a veritable Molotov cocktail of insanely high expectations and longstanding goodwill. As a result, there’s no way after a nearly two-decade wait this movie could possibly live up to the hype; and, by the same token, Indy fans (like me) are probably willing—on first viewing—to overlook various disappointments because they (and I) are so glad to have their beloved haymaker-throwing archaeologist back in action.

I remember walking out of “The Phantom Menace” almost exactly nine years ago to the day and thinking I liked it, having been dazzled by all that updated lightsaber technique and what not. It wasn’t until the third viewing (yes, I’m ashamed to have seen it thrice in the theaters) that all the excitement finally ebbed and I realized what an awful train-wreck of a movie “Menace” truly is.

I don’t think the same will happen with “Indy 4,” but I doubt I’ll come back to this movie very often, either, the way I do its three predecessors. There were definitely highlights, but most of those were—like “Phantom Menace”—action driven. To be sure, director Steven Spielberg hasn’t lost his touch for delivering the goods on a good ol’ fashioned chase sequence. There are plenty in “Indy 4,” and they’re all basically spectacular.

But it’s the stuff in between and around those romps that leaves me wanting more. Spielberg and Lucas made absolutely the right choice by not trying to fake Indy’s age; the plot of “Crystal Skull” takes place 19 years after the events in the franchise’s last installment, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” But the showrunners don’t take that premise far enough—Jones’ age is only dealt with in sidelong glances. Early in the film, young co-star Shia LeBeouf’s Mutt asks Indy: “What are you, 80?” It’s a good line, and it gets a good laugh, but all is seemingly forgotten a few minutes later when Jones delivers a few nice punches and jumps from a moving motorcycle into a moving car. And even though Harrison Ford more than holds his own in these action scenes, the gutsier and more satisfying choice would have examined what it’s like for a fading hero to face his own physical limitations. That's a movie I'll watch more than once.

Matter of fact, it’s ironic that for a character so beloved, “Crystal Skull” doesn’t focus on him much at all. The central plot is so convoluted, Indy is forced to basically float from place to place so the script can do its heavy lifting and unravel the knot of a mystery that never really makes much sense. As a result, there are at times long stretches between action sequences with little more going on than characters standing around delivering expository dialogue—more precious character-developing screen time wasted. For his part, Ford seems torn between two ways of portraying Indy: he vacillates between the cynical world-weary stud who’s seen and done it all, and the old guy who doesn’t understand what the next generation of young whipper-snappers is all about.

All this is not to say I didn’t like “Indy 4,” because I did. LeBeouf is downright terrific in his role of a young greaser who enlists Jones’ help to find his kidnapped mother; the budding star injects some needed energy into the film, and he and Ford work quite well together. Despite his struggles in search of the correct Indy tone, Ford in spots reminds us all over again why we love Indiana Jones with his wisecracks and whip smacks. It’s a fun day out at the movies, with some laughs, some gasps, and some moments to cheer.

It’s just a shame that after so many years and so much wrangling over a story, somewhere along the line Lucas and Spielberg cut the heart out of their hero.

Grade: B-

No comments: