INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL has been a long time in coming and, as it turns out, more than worth the wait. This return to the old-fashioned action/adventure/fantasy genre is more than an homage to those implausible but irresistible serials of yore, it’s more than a superb revisiting of the homage lobbed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg back in the 1980s, it’s one of the most exhilarating films of the summer, possibly the year. Don’t let the fluff fool you, it may be strictly for fun, but it’s done with wit, charm, and enough wry irascibility to make it a two-hour thrill-ride that never lets up and never lets its audience down.
It’s everything it needs to be for the sake of continuity with what came before, everything the audience wants it to be for the sake of wish-fulfillment, but it still manages deliver the unexpected in almost every frame of film. As for instance, expectations about the major surprises that aren’t in the new character of Mutt, played with sleek, pompadoured, anti-establishment attitude by Shia LeBeouf. Fans of the series will have figured out what he’s doing there from a plethora of cues, including his nickname and one of the ladies in the cast.
Wisely, all concerned have seen the wisdom and necessity of letting Indy age as gracefully as Harrison Ford, the actor who embodies him, has over the last 19 years. He may grayer, he may be a bit slower, but this tenured professor of archeology is also still out there on the trail of exotic artifacts and even more exotic adventure. It includes the new sidekick, an old girlfriend, a dashing colleague with uncertain alliances (Ray Winstone), and another, stuffier colleague (John Hurt) whose encounter with the crystal skull has caused him to go over the deep end then some, though Indy prefers to see it as making him interesting for the first time in his life.
Screen introductions are serious business here. Indy’s first appearance is presaged by the hat, then the shadowy outline, and then there’s the man himself, just removed from the trunk of a car by a phalanx of Commies but still wisecracking his disdain with his preternatural sense of confidence in his own ability to save the day. Obviously snakes aren’t involved here, but Area 51 is, and so are a troop of crack KGB agents on the trail of something with which to control the world (of course). They’re led by Col. Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the Soviet psychic apparat-chick in charge of the operation. She may be minx-like in looks, sporting a Louise Brooks bob and serious eye makeup, but she’s also tough enough to keep up with Indy without breaking a sweat through the deepest darkest reaches of the Amazon basin, tracking him and the eponymous crystal skull that is the key to both world domination and the story at hand.
LeBeouf’s first entrance is equally memorable, with him throttling onscreen riding a motorcycle and channeling Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE with such precision that the audacity of it all is simply breathtaking. Reedy where Brando was lithe, LeBeouf nonetheless has channeled Brando’s essence of rebellion and transmuted it into his own. It’s not the only call-out to classic cinema, all of which are done with equal aplomb. The first scenes of a military convey in the desert being buzzed by a convertible full of kids, for example, evokes AMERICAN GRAFFITI without straining the reference to fit as Elvis rocks and prarie dogs, which may or may not be a reference to Ewoks, scamper.
No Indy film is complete without a dazzling array of special effects to add their own special dimension. The ones here don’t disappoint. They’re fiendishly clever, not relying on the mere spectacle of mountaintops that reinvent themselves. There are also things like the door to a long-lost chamber that doesn’t so much open as disassemble itself with a nifty mechanical precision. Ditto no Indy film complete without whopping action sequences, and these don’t disappoint either, with chases building to ever more dizzying stakes and convoluted situations. The action never lets up as Indy does battle with the ci-mentioned Soviets, an atom bomb (as well as the indignities of the post-blast scrub-down), the FBI, the paranoia of the Cold War, and a snake. There has to be at least one involved just for the sheer enjoyment of watching a man who can save the day no matter what show off that one chink in his otherwise impeccable armor.
There’s a light touch to all this popcorn-chomping, adrenalin-pumping fun, but if one wanted to, one could note the parallels to today as guilt-by-association and questions of patriotism become just so much fodder for what one character terms the charged political climate, the one that costs Indy his university job early on. It’s that dash of reality injected into all the fantasy that is the touchstone giving an nice extra dimension to the fantasy. Indy is no superhero. He is bold, reckless, and really, really smart, but far from perfect. Sure, he’ll save the day eventually, but probably not with his first try or even the second, and therein lies the suspense. That and some particularly nasty South American ants, as well as running into that old flame who isn’t so much carrying a torch for Indy as a metaphorical club to take him down several pegs. As for the villain of the piece, she’s not merely pure evil, she’s got a thirst for knowledge that is of Faustian proportions, hence, and unlike our man Indy, she is willing to sell her soul and anyone else’s for it, no matter what the price.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is a formula film, there is no getting around it, but a formula film refined to a brilliant quintessence, reminding one and all why the formula was written to begin with.