Thursday, May 29, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Magic Kingdom

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and a few grody death scenes
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.23.08
Buy DVD: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull • Buy Blu-Ray: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [Blu-ray]

Two decades have passed since 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but if it really took this long for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford to be satisfied with the script for Indy's long-awaited fourth film adventure, the gestation time has been well-spent.
After breaking free from their captors, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf, left), Indy (Harrison
Ford) and Marion (Karen Allen) commandeer a truck and crash through the
Peruvian jungle, determined to catch up to the Soviet villains who've abducted
a friend and a priceless relic that supposedly has extraordinary powers.

David Koepp's screenplay is all things to all people: It properly respects the fans and acknowledges Indy's roots while examining — and gently spoofing — the character through an entirely fresh set of (youthful) eyes. That aside, one also must be impressed by a script that covers everything from atomic bomb test sites and the 1950s communist witch hunt to Area 51, Peru's Nazca lines and Erich von Däniken's "Chariots of the Gods."

Toss in a marvelously fiendish villain with an unstoppable man-mountain sidekick, and the result is a welcome return to the light-hearted, thrill-a-minute exploits found in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ... absent the many mistakes that so badly compromised the original trilogy's middle entry, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

So, the heck with those who may have worried that Indy — and Harrison Ford — were past their prime; when Lucas and Spielberg are at the top of their game, as they are here, movie lovers are in great hands.

I suspect even today's jaded, "show me" teens will be impressed by several sequences.

After an eyeblink credits sequence that makes droll sport of the Paramount studio logo, the story kicks into gear as a kidnapped Indy (Ford) and new sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) are dragged to a setting that can't help making fans smile: the never-officially titled "warehouse" where the Ark of the Covenant was placed for storage, at the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The year is 1957, and a new set of Soviet enemies — led by the icy-cold Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) — wants one carefully crated item from this massive storage facility.

At the end of Raiders, we only got a glimpse of this warehouse's labyrinthine interior. This time around, Koepp and Spielberg take us inside and stage the first action sequence within its walls.

What can I say? It's fan-geek heaven.

Although he survives this first skirmish, Indy isn't able to prevent Spalko from escaping with the coveted item. This creates problems back at Marshall College, where FBI agents — annoyed by the way Indy "helped" Soviet spies infiltrate a U.S. military base — question our hero's loyalty and order him removed from his teaching position. Longtime friend and colleague Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) resigns in protest, but it does no good: Indy has lost his ability to teach, the one thing he loves best.

The only solution: to find Spalko, recover the missing whatzis and clear his name.

Mere child's play, for the whip-wielding hero who makes all his moves to John Williams' stirring orchestral fanfares.

Not entirely by coincidence, Indy is intercepted by Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a rebellious young man who arrives with a fantastic tale involving his mentor, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), and a fabled crystal skull that is reputed to point the way to a mythical lost city of gold. Mutt's impatient desire for Indy's help is further motivated by the fact that the young man's mother has been kidnapped by Spalko; Mom's name is — cue another knowing smile from longtime fans — Marion.

These early scenes between Indy and Mutt are prickly, neither having all that much respect for the other. LaBeouf rather overplays the angry young man affectations, and his rabbity, hair-trigger temper feels a bit like "acting." But as the story progresses and Mutt's character settles down a bit, LaBeouf becomes much more engaging; his frequent double-takes, as Mutt's initial dismissal of the older man as a "useless professor" proves premature, are quite amusing.

The various protagonists and antagonists eventually come together in Peru, at which point Koepp and Spielberg really kick the film into gear.

An early chase sequence through the streets (and buildings!) of Marshall College is nothing compared to a hell-for-leather sequence taking place deep in the Peruvian jungle, as jeeps and various other military vehicles roar into and past each other, all while possession of the crystal skull flips from Indy and Professor Oxley to Mutt and Spalko, and back again.

It's a bravura action sequence, and Sacramento's Sunday morning preview audience burst into applause when it finally came to a breathtaking stop.

Ford slides back into this iconic role with the ease and grace of Indy flipping that well-worn hat onto his head. The character obviously is much older now, and Koepp's script confronts this issue: Indy's strength and judgment aren't as infallible as back in the day, and his wardrobe has been augmented by a reluctant awareness of mortality.

Broadbent has a great line, early on, as he and Indy — soon to be booted out of Marshall College — reflect on the absence of both the senior Professor Jones and museum curator Marcus Brody, represented by framed photographs of Sean Connery and Denholm Elliott.

"We've reached that point where life takes away more than it gives," Stanforth notes, with shared sorrow, and this element of vulnerability can be felt throughout the film.

Well, most of the time, anyway. The manner by which Indy survives the first act's atomic bomb blast can't help raising eyebrows, even in this larger-than-life setting.

I marvel at the degree to which Blanchett so fully inhabits a character, even one this exaggerated. She's the pluperfect ruthless Soviet interrogator and scientist, her manner as severe as Spalko's haircut.

Her subtlety also is impressive. Despite Irina Spalko's unscrupulous demeanor, she can't help showing the excitement of discovery for its own sake, which also fuels much of Ford's performance; at times, Indy and Spalko gleefully trade information more in the manner of longtime colleagues than recent mortal enemies.

At the same time, Blanchett infuses her work here with just enough of a wink and a nod to reveal that she, too, is having a great time.

Blanchett's acting chops aside, fans are likely to be more delighted by this film's other female star: the sorely missed Karen Allen, reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood — at long last! — from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kate Capshaw was a pale imitation in Temple of Doom, and I can't even recall the female lead in Last Crusade.

Let's just acknowledge the obvious: There's only one woman in Indy's life, and Allen nailed that role perfectly the first time.

She's still as feisty here, not to mention impressively youthful despite the passage of a quarter-century. She and Ford spar like a couple of veterans from Hollywood's classic screwball comedies; the fun of their initial pairing was the love/hate relationship between Indy and Marion, and that hasn't changed.

Ford uncorks a great line during the heat of the aforementioned Peruvian action scene, when Marion huffily insists that Indy must've had other women in his life. Ford's response, delivered with all his considerable charm, would make any woman's heart go pitty-pat.

Although the final act has its share of CGI work, as Spalko learns that one should be careful what one wishes for, the retro stuntwork during the action scenes leading up to this moment are refreshingly authentic and unsweetened.

One maneuver from a motorcycle, through a moving vehicle and then back onto the bike, is as shake-your-head audacious as the famed drag/slide beneath the truck in Raiders.

Bottom line: I may not have gotten quite the same euphoric buzz as during that memorable afternoon back in 1981, as Raiders opened with that wonderful scene of Harrison Ford trying to outrun a giant stone billiard ball ... but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes darn close.

More than good enough.

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