Friday, May 23, 2008

Skull Session

The next big, big film in the Pop Culture America Summer Tentpole Cinema Gala (or whatever we're calling it) is none other than ...

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (d. Steven Spielberg)

After raiding a lost ark, dooming a temple, and crusading, always crusading, Indiana Jones returns to theater screens for the first time in nearly twenty years with a long, twisting journey to the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which, like the "kingdom" in Forbidden Kingdom, doesn't appear to be a kingdom at all. But I digress.

Harrison Ford once again dons the familiar fedora and the ordinary, common household bullwhip (don't judge my household!) and while his age might show and the stunt doubles might be a little more apparent than they once were, he seems right at home in his action-hero milieu. It's good to have Indy back.

Previous Jones adventures all revolved around some mysterious religious artifact. Professor Jones early in the movie would poo-poo any possibility that the items held genuine supernatural powers, only to benefit from those powers at the end (spoiler?).

But it's twenty years after the last movie, 1957, and the world is a different place. The twisted mystics of the Nazis have been supplanted as America's global nemeses by the godless red Commies and appropriately, the power of the artifact in question, the Crystal Skull of the title, is not religious but scientific. Or, more accurately, science-fiction. The Skull seems to be tied into whatever it was the U.S. government dug out of the alien spacecraft wreckage at Roswell in 1947. Dug out with the help of one Doctor Henry Jones Jr., natch.

Heading the Russians is Irina Spalko, a Stalinist dominatrix sporting Christina Ricci's inky Speed Racer pageboy and an accent borrowed from Natasha Fatale. Spalko believes the crystallized alien bones can give her the ability to read and control minds. She's out to make good on Nikita Khrushchev's boast delivered in 1956: "We will bury you without firing a shot!"

Teaming with Indy against Spalko and her Soviet thugs are Shia LaBeouf as Mutt, a 50s greaser punk who has lifted Brando's iconic look from The Wild One, and Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's plucky gal pal from the first film.

Allen's return is especially welcome as she was easily the most engaging match for Dr. Jones in the first three films. Sadly, after a rather predictable revelation, she is relegated to the sidelines, cheering Ford on and occasionally driving. Maybe Allen wasn't up to the rigors of an action film.

But Ford and LaBeouf are, and they both dive into the corpse-strewn, bug-covered world of Indiana Jones with relish, energetically punching and sword-fighting the Commies on the race for alien bones, determined to beat Spalko and the reds to the finish line.

Cate Blanchett cheerfully chews the scenery as the villainous Russian agent and she takes her place as one of the series' better menaces. The Communists may have never quite been the match of the Nazis for shear evil, but they are not without their icy cold bad-guy charms, as James Bond films have known for years.

Raiders of the Lost Ark saw Spielberg and producer/writer George Lucas channeling the 1930s/1940s adventure serials of their youth into a rousing (and superior) modern entertainment. This movie sees them assaying the actual world of their youth; in 1957, Lucas turned 13 and Spielberg 11. It makes sense that spiritual concerns would be replaced here by the kind of young boys' science-fiction that would eventually inspire Star Wars and E.T.

The movie stumbles a bit here and there, particularly in an endless sequence towards the beginning where LaBeouf and Ford explore a crypt and -- spoiler alert -- nothing happens. But a later chase through the Amazon jungle on Soviet military vehicles more than makes up for it with some of the series' most thrilling stuntwork (and that's saying something) as Indy, Mutt and Spalko all thrust and parry while leaping impossibly from truck to truck.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't have the transcendent exhilaration of the first film, or even the lurid outlaw thrills of the second, but it is a top-notch actioner and one of this early summer's best rides.

3 stars.

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