Friday, May 23

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones returns for one more adventure.

It's been a long time since the last time we saw Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. in fighting form, but Indy's back. Like John Rambo and John McClaine, Jonesy has come out of retirement for one more shot at glory. I have to say, the Indiana Jones series is, for me, THE number one title when it comes to pulp-action adventure with a historic/mythical schtick. Nothing else comes close- Tomb Raider, National Treasure... NO ONE can touch Dr. Jones. Even though I have to say that since the perfect and sublime Raiders of the Lost Ark, the quality has gone down by notches in every sequel after, an Indy film is head and shoulders, whiplashed-to-the-chandelier-higher than any other adventure movie delving into ancient secrets or mythical treasures.

That said, we all didn't think another Indy would be possible- when Indy, Henry Sr., Salah and Marcus Brody rode off into the sunset after Last Crusade, we all thought that was it. But apparently since then things happened and we do have another entry into the series, thus forever quashing the name Indiana Jones Trilogy and making it the Indiana Jones Foursome of movies.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Man, what a cumbersome title) takes a turn to the sci-fi, referring to the Roswell Incident with flying saucers and little gray men from outer space. It's soon revealed that a small army of Russian cold warriors, led by the supposedly psychic agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett doing her best Natasha impression) is after remains of aliens- crystal skulls- in the hopes of unlocking some mysterious powers to rule the world. Of course, the one man who can stop them is the one man they bring in to help them unlock the secrets of the skull- Indiana Jones himself.

Indiana (Harrison Ford) has seen better years- he's a lot older, a lot puffier and grizzled, and with old friend Marcus Brody and father Henry Sr. having passed away some time before, he's not in the highest spirits. But thank god- it's still Indy as we know him. Harrison Ford still has it for the most part, and he can still swing a punch, deliver a line, crack that whip and swash that buck like no other hero.

Unfortunately, even with nostalgia and the pleasure of seeing Indy again, the mere fact remains that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, without a doubt, the least of the series.

It's not because the heroes are old, though I have to admit I was jarred a bit to realize how old Harrison Ford and Karen Allen are now... Harrison is Indy, Karen is Marion Ravenwood- it would have not been the same without them. The biggest problems I believe with Kingdom are the below par story, script, direction and pacing. That may be harshy, but really, I believe that given the pedigree of the series, this entry is just not done as well as with the previous installments. It certainly hurts that it isn't as intense as before (everything is so strangely bloodless), just as the demand to be more ratings-friendly hurt Die Hard 4.0. But for the most part, the movie just isn't tight, with scenes messily transitioning into one another with as much grace as Mutt Williams' (Shia LaBeouf) simply punching a random guard which inexplicably lets the heroes all escape an enemy camp into the jungle.

It's a problem that the actual quest for the Skull and its secrets is also not as clever, well-presented or clear as in previous movies. There's not as much sense of wonder or awe that permeated the quests of previous films- experiences like finding the Hell of Holes and discovering the resting place of the ark in Raiders, or even just finding the big 'X' marks the spot in Last Crusade- perhaps it's in the imagery and music as well as the script. Here things just seem to happen on autopilot, with the settings and ruins looking strangely generic, with odd live guardians (who are never really given explanation or any depth aside from being just obstacles to take out). The actual Crystal Skull, once found, is actually... strangely cheap-looking and under-whelming... and much too convenient as a device to just keep the quest going and going and going.

The pacing problems persist to the end- again, it's hard not to refer to previous films- as while all of the previous movies were thrill-a-minute rides, Crystal Skull has gaps between the big set-piece action scenes, things that just pop in and pop out as if they were there just to add a bit more spice to the scene (like the aforementioned live guardians of the ruins Indy and company head into). The finale/endgame and resolution sadly feels anti-climactic (coming right after the best action in the movie), predictable and unspectacular, and actually mirrors the same ending of X-Files the movie- just a spectacle for the characters to stand back and watch, rather than be a part of.

The new characters are hit-and-miss; Mutt Williams kinda starts off with a bum leg since we ALL know just WHO HE REALLY IS even before stepping into the theater, thanks to all the hype and news on the internet. He's not THAT bad, but I really feel they tried a bit too hard to make him 'cool' or likeable as a way perhaps of passing the fedora to him, maybe. Not yet ready, I say. Not quite there yet.

Then there's Mac (Ray Winstone), Indy's old friend who turns out to be a double-triple-quadruple dealing agent. He's never a real threat, doesn't really impact on the story much and just feels like extraneous, unnecessary baggage and dodgy comic relief.

As villains go, Irina Spalko is, at least, a physical adversary instead of just being a behind-the-fodder mastermind like Belloq or Donovan... but she still falls behind them in villainy, and Mola Ram of Temple of Doom still rules for me as the best Indy baddie. The sad thing about Spalco though is that she's woefully underused where she could have been really cool. Like Mola Ram's Heart-plucking trick, more should have been made of her psychic powers, instead of her fencing ability and physical prowess. No, I wouldn't have liked her to have become the Indy equivalent of Professor X, but at least make her deserve that offbeat uniform, poses and hairdo by making her more formidable. Also, the Russian soldiers are sadly nowhere near as nasty or fun to take on as the Nazis or Thugees. They seem brain-dead a lot of the time, and are strangely presented more sympathetically or more human than the cartoon baddies of previous films, which takes away a bit from the fun in dispatching them.

What makes me feel bad most about Kingdom is how many missed opportunities there are, I think, that could have made the overall experience so much better. It would have been more intense to give a bit of danger to Marion or Mutt near the end, or at any point of the movie, to give Indy that much more incentive to fight given it's HIS FAMILY at stake. However, we never really feel they're in any danger at any point, certainly not like how Henry Sr. is shot and taken to death's door at the climax of Last Crusade. We never really learn much about the Skull, what it's real powers were or what the point was to the whole thing after all was said and done.


Even with all that, I have to still say- it's an Indy film, and it's impossible for me to hate this film, flaws and flaws and all. There's still cool action about, memorable scenes (Indy and the Mushroom cloud is pretty amazing) and a nice, well-deserved ending for one of cinema's greatest action heroes. This just makes me want to bring out the old movies and watch them again... which certainly can't be a bad thing.

It's Indiana Jones, people. I'll take this Indy over No Indy anytime. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now showing in theaters all over the Metro.