A few weeks ago we caught the last 45 minutes or so of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on television. There was a scene in which Indy is fighting some Nazis in a tank and the tank goes over the edge of a cliff. His father and friends run to the edge and start to mourn his passing. Meanwhile, a few dozen feet away, Indy pulls himself up over the edge of the cliff and limps up behind them and looks over the edge with them. It’s a moment which perfectly illustrates why Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were basically crappy films: Their sense of humor sucked eggs, exploiting the foibles of the characters for the cheapest sort of laughs. Last Crusade, although with a nominally better plot than Temple, was especially guilty of this sin, using Indy’s father (played by Sean Connery at his most ridiculous) and friends as little more than comic relief. It was like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wanted to make a couple of bad James Bond films, but didn’t even make it that high.
How the heck did these two manage to take basically the same elements and turn them into the excellent Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Anyway, nearly 20 years later, Harrison Ford is back as Henry Jones Jr., in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Taking place in 1957, the film opens with Indy and his partner Mac McHale (Ray Winstone) having been captured by a team of Soviets, led by Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett with a black bob haircut), who have brought them to Area 51 to find a certain item in a military warehouse. They get what they’re looking for, but Indy escapes, and then manages to survive an atomic bomb test (!) before telling what he knows to some government officials, who are notably suspicious of him for having helped the Russians at all.
Back at the university, Indy finds that he’s being placed on a leave of absence. As he heads out to who-knows-where, he’s contacted by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who’s friends with an old friend of Indy’s, Dr. Henry Oxley (John Hurt). Mutt says that ‘Ox’ is in South America on the trail of Akator, a mythical ‘city of gold’, but that he’s been captured, and that Mutt’s mother followed him and has also been captured. Managing to elude both the Russians and the FBI, Indy and Mutt head to South America where they once again meet both Spalko, and Indy’s old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, reprising her role from Raiders), and the various parties battle their way towards Akator while trading ownership of a mysterious crystal skull dating back hundreds – maybe thousands – of years.
The film is irrepressibly silly – c’mon, surviving a nuclear explosion? – but I enjoyed it a lot more than I’d expected to. In a sense it completes the “arc” of the four films’ storytelling “feel”: Raiders was an absolutely straight adventure film until the supernatural bit at the very end, but later films get less plausible until in Crystal Skull the film is pretty ludicrous almost from the get-go. But it’s also comfortable in its implausibility; you know there are going to be ancient traps that couldn’t possibly work, and it’s pretty obvious very early on what the Crystal Skull really is and what its Kingdom almost certainly is, and although it ends in a climax that’s maybe even too over-the-top for this movie, it’s still a lot of fun getting there.
Happily, the script crafts just enough of a world around the character to make it feel like Indy’s really been doing things for the 19 years since Last Crusade: Fighting in the war, doing jobs for the government, continuing his archaeological exploits, and seeing old friends pass on. The world hasn’t stood still but neither has he.
The film also takes its characters seriously: Mutt, Marion and Ox aren’t there just for comic relief, nor is Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) at the university, who fills the role Marcus Brody did in the earlier films as Indy’s friend and confidante (without being reduced to the woeful caricature that Brody was in Last Crusade). Mutt is both a little in awe of Indy, and competent and willful in his own right. Marion was I think the weakest character, and Karen Allen mugs her way through most of the film with a maniacal grin on her face, which makes her seem not very much like the character in Raiders. That’s too bad, but the main relationship in the film is between Indy and Mutt, so it doesn’t hurt the film very much. Blanchett as the villain is pretty generic, not given much material to work with, and not really managing to transcend the material; Spalko is just a necessary driving element of the plot.
But it’s the action sequences and Ford himself which holds the film together. Considering Raiders got all the best jokes about how Indy isn’t quite as tough a guy as he sometimes acts, it’s been tough for the later films to plumb that territory. Now that Indy’s pushing 60 he both has to make the action scenes plausible while not making the character seem pathetic through “OMG Indy’s pushing 60!” jokes. To the film’s credit I think it manages to make that narrow passage and ends up being a fun adventure film with many good action scenes and a few nice character bits. Not all the action scenes work – the swordfight is a little too gratuitous, and there’s a really nasty and unnecessary sequence involving carniverous ants – but mostly it’s a really fun ride.
Honestly given George Lucas’ awful track record as a screenwriter – none of the recent Star Wars trilogy were worth much in the story department – I didn’t know what to expect here, but overall I enjoyed it. I’d probably even watch it again, which is more than I can say for Temple or Last Crusade. And in fact I’d even go see a fifth film, if they make one. Sure, I think it would have been a substantially better film if the ending had been toned down to be less ridiculous, but still.
So if you have a healthy tolerance for cheese in your adventure films – and frankly, you’d be something special if you have a lower tolerance for it than I do – then you’ll probably enjoy Crystal Skull. It ain’t Raiders, but it’s fun.