One of the most eagerly and long-awaited series follow-ups in screen history delivers the goods — not those of the still first-rate original, 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but those of its uneven two successors. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” begins with an actual big bang, then gradually slides toward a ho-hum midsection before literally taking off for an uplifting finish. Nineteen years after their last adventure, director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford have no trouble getting back in the groove with a story and style very much in keeping with what has made the series so perennially popular. Few films have ever had such a high mass audience must-see factor, spelling giant May 22 openings worldwide and a rambunctious B.O. life all the way into the eventual “Indiana Jones” DVD four-pack.
As has been well chronicled, Spielberg and exec producer George Lucas went through no end of writers and story concepts before plausibly updating the action precisely the same number of years as have elapsed since “Last Crusade,” to 1957, smack dab in the middle of the Cold War. U.S. versus USSR dynamic spurs the dynamite opening action sequence, in which a convoy of Russian soldiers camouflaged in American army vehicles rolls into a remote desert nuclear testing base in search of a coveted object. Helping them in this effort will be their prisoner, Indiana Jones.
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With an energy and enthusiasm bespeaking years of pent-up desire to get back to this sort of fun filmmaking, Spielberg sets the period spirit with a rock ‘n’ roll-fueled drag race and, with the characters’ entry into the legendary Hangar 51, intimations of an other-worldly presence. As the aging issue is tossed off with a joke or two, the sixtysomething hero quickly proves that the passage of time will not be an inhibiting factor all these years later, as Indy trades smart remarks with the formidable Soviet officer Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) before jumping into action the equal of any of the great setpieces the entire series has previously offered.
In Spalko, the film has a villain worthy not just of Indiana Jones but of a James Bond film, one who’s madly intelligent as well as appreciative of an opponent she views as a near-equal. With her trim gray uniform, silver rapier, Louise Brooks haircut and piercing blue eyes, Blanchett provides a major treat whenever she’s around.
The 20 nonstop opening minutes include a striking variation on the many cookie-cutter middle-class housing tracts featured in Spielberg films, this one populated exclusively by plastic figurines enacting a cliche of a ‘50s Yank lifestyle while awaiting the nuclear test to come, one Indy must quickly figure out how to survive. Even that’s not the end of the scene, which runs the length of the sort of Saturday matinee adventure serial that inspired the series in the first place.
Like the bravura opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” this smashing launch sets a standard the rest of the film has some trouble living up to. When Professor Jones returns to his university, he’s informed by his dean (Jim Broadbent, replacing the late Denholm Elliott) that he’s being suspended due to FBI doubt over his loyalty. Indiana Jones suspected of commie sympathies? And this after he’s already told Spalko that “I like Ike.”
Another iconic aspect of the decade rolls in with a kid named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a leather-jacketed biker who travels with comb and switchblade. Between a contrived fistfight and extended motorized chase around the leafy college campus, Mutt sets the grand adventure in motion by offering evidence of the possible location of the Crystal Skull of Akator, an object of great archeological and, possibly, psychic and other-dimensional fascination.
In a nostalgia-producing air travel montage like those in previous series entries, Indy and Mutt make their way to Peru, where the action relaxes in some rather rote creepy-crawly cave shenanigans before the guys lay their hands on the crystal skull itself, an oddly shaped clear cranium that all agree is not of human origin. But it’s shortly snatched by Spalko, who believes the skull possesses psychic power that would prove decisive in mind warfare, no doubt ending the Cold War then and there.
All this gibberish is merely designed to justify the battle of wits and weapons, which continues apace as the Russians collect two further prisoners, Indy’s old cohort and crystal skull expert, the now insane Professor Oxley (John Hurt), and Mutt’s mom, none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s flame from “Raiders” and clearly the woman he was always meant to be with.
Coming at pic’s midway point, it’s a welcome reunion, although written to escalate too quickly into intense bickering; a few more initial beats of mutual recognition, to permit the resonance of their relationship to seep back into the characterizations, would have give the rematch more heft.
But it’s off and running again, with a race through the jungle as the good guys and bad guys jump between vehicles, duel with fists, sabers and machine guns, are assaulted by monkeys and ravenous giant ants and, in an undoubted preview of a forthcoming theme-park ride, plummet down three imposing waterfalls. For pure action thrills, this sequence rates close to the first one, yet there’s one more to come, a mixed-bag wrap-up that transports the Indiana Jones series into a realm it’s never occupied before but is well familiar to Spielberg and Lucas.
For all the verbiage expended just to keep the story cranking forward, David Koepp’s script accomplishes the two essentials: It keeps the structure on the straight and narrow, and is true to the character of Indiana Jones himself. Thanks to this and Ford’s full-bodied performance, Indy comes through just as viewers remember him: crafty, capable, impatient, manly and red-blooded American. He looks great for his age, although it’s never pretended he’s younger than he is, and Mutt pays him the ultimate compliment when he says, “For an old man, you ain’t bad in a fight.”
Allen also looks real good and radiates the same winning smile and tomboyish enthusiasm that made her “Raiders” characterization so critical to the film’s complete success; her Marion is perhaps the greatest Hawksian female performance in anything other than a Howard Hawks film. LaBeouf eventually earns his stripes after a somewhat forced beginning, and Ray Winstone, along with fellow Brits Hurt and Broadbent, fills out the roster of newcomers as a duplicitous mercenary who switches sides with each change of fortune.
Technically, film is every bit as accomplished as one expects from Spielberg and the series. Of the director’s key original collaborators, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams return in full form. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas provides some striking creations, particularly the ancient circular chamber that houses the climax. First three series were lensed by the great British d.p. Douglas Slocombe in bold, clean images, and while Spielberg’s now-regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has mostly succeeded in reproducing this look, which is very different from his usual style, he still can’t prevent himself from letting in some characteristic flared light and hazy backgrounds.