Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Second-to-Last Crusade

I'm only a few hours away from seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Don't ruin it for me. But before I do, here are some thoughts about the previous installment in the series ...

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (d. Steven Spielberg)

There are only a few strategies for combating sequelitis. The most effective is probably the one Steven Spielberg has used for the bulk of his lengthy career: don't make sequels. But if you must, you can try a couple different things.

You can ratchet everything up a notch, as Spielberg did in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its increased quotient of violence and gore. There's an understandable inclination to play a game of "Can You Top This?" with sequels and Temple of Doom is one of the more successful examples.

Or you can go another route. You can attempt to recapture the magic of the original by repeating many of the same elements, which brings us to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In this third film of the series, many of the characters and ideas from Raiders of the Lost Ark that had been omitted in Temple of Doom reappear: Doctor Jones (Jr.) teaches class to moony-eyed coeds again, his department head Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) is back, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) is back, there's a holy Judeo-Christian relic to be found, and the Nazis make a goose-stepping return.

Two major new elements are added to the Jones mythos with this film. In a thrilling prologue, River Phoenix portrays Indiana Jones as a young boy scout, already finding himself mixed up in the sort of archaeological escapade that will mark his adult life. Phoenix plays the brief part with aplomb and there was talk after the movie was released that he might anchor further installments of the series as Young Indy. Those plans eventually became the TV show "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" which Phoenix was offered and declined. Four years after The Last Crusade was released, he would be dead at 23. Hope those delicious drugs were worth it, champ.

The other major addition is the love interest in the film. No, I'm not talking about Teutonic beauty Alison Doody (rhymes and scans!). The love interest in The Last Crusade is played by Sean Connery as Professor Henry Jones Senior. Connery seems quite cheerful to inhabit the damsel-in-distress role throughout the film and he has more chemistry in any one scene with star Harrison Ford than Kate Capshaw managed in the entire second film. The love story between son and estranged father is the most effective aspect of the movie.

This time around, Indiana and company are after the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and that collected his blood as he hung from the cross. Naturally the Nazis are after it too, and (spoiler alert) they chase each other a lot throughout.

The Professors Jones each possess (and are possessed by) a great deal of enthusiasm for their quest, but the film can't muster up much interest. The Holy Grail becomes just another thing at the end of a path full of shoot-outs, rats, blimp chases and the inevitable elaborate traps. It's the very definition of a Hitchcockian McGuffin, and little else.

Still, Spielberg and his team are incapable of a dull action sequence, and as with the previous Jones entry, the shear energy and invention of the chases and battles win the day. Young Indy scampering across a circus train was my favorite, and a later battle with the Germans on board a tank in the desert is also masterfully staged.

Having tried both major strategies of dealing with sequelitis -- and with the potential star of a new Jones franchise dead outside the Viper Room -- Spielberg retired Indiana Jones as a film series after The Last Crusade. Until today.

Here's hoping. I gotta go get in line for tickets now.

3 stars.

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