Monday, May 26, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This is not going to be a typical review, in that I won't be jumping right into what the movie is about. It's soon enough after the film's release that some of those reading might not have read it. I'll get to the topic eventually, but I won't spoil much for the reader. What I'd like to write about right now is simply why I enjoy these films so much. As a Gen Xer, perhaps, I can do little else.

Steven Spielberg remains one of our greatest living directors by providing both enjoyable stories and by eliciting humane, believable performances from his actors. If George Lucas had had the sense to give Spielberg the directing job for, say, Episode III of Star Wars, I might've forgiven him for the other two.

Lucas is the big idea guy--concepts, effects, action sequences, explosions, etc. He is quite possibly one of the worst of his USC Film School peers when it comes to getting good performances from actors, though American Graffiti and the first Star Wars show some signs that once upon a time he understood human emotions.

Harrison Ford, even at 65, is still The Man. Beyond a doubt, he is THE movie star of the past generation. He is not known (in my mind) for his great acting range, but for bringing along his rugged good looks and strong sense of himself, like Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper. He is an action hero in regular guy's clothing. While not many of us could see ourselves being the musclebound Schwarzenegger or Stallone, there is something appealing about a Ford hero. He bleeds, he gets hurt, but he keeps going and manages a snarky remark or two along the way. There is something manly (not macho) and very human about Ford's hero that people relate and respond to. There are exceptions to Ford's action-hero career, like Blade Runner, Witness, and The Mosquito Coast (or, for sheer awfulness, Regarding Henry), but really when people think of Ford's career in 20-30 years, they'll be thinking of the epics he made with Spielberg and Lucas. And that's not such a bad thing, since they are some of the most successful and culturally influential films of the late 20th century.

John Williams is the not-so-silent fourth partner of the Indiana Jones films, and he has made Spielberg's and Lucas's epics shine even brighter than they might have otherwise. As composer/conductor of the soundtracks for all of Spielberg's work since Jaws, as well as the Star Wars movies, Williams' music is embedded in our society along with the films. And his themes are tied to Indiana Jones as indelibly as the hat, jacket, and bullwhip. I write this to say that Williams' work put me in a positive and (dare one say it?) heroic frame of mind.
In short, it's a pleasure to have all four of these men working together again. 

As must be obvious, Indiana Jones was one of my heroes growing up, and he still is.

And while I don't wear the costume as well as Mr. Ford does, I at least took the time to get it as right as I could (YOU try finding a real bullwhip these days!). Indiana Jones made me want to be a hero when I grew up. The first two films came out when I was just about the perfect age: 11 to 14. At the peak of adolescence, boys start changing into young men, and are looking for someone to look up to--a role model, example, hero--call them what you will. There are worse heroes one might have had at that age than Dr. Jones. I shudder to think of what lessons an 11-to-14-year-old might be learning now watching Lucas's young Anakin Skywalker.

After Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, I spent some time in the library tracking down the Ark of the Covenant's location, as well as the city of Tanis, and anything else I could dig up. It wasn't like I was going to book a trip to Egypt at that age. Mostly, I was checking to see how much of Raiders was real and how much was BS. But even at that age, I wanted to be the hero. I fashioned myself a rope "whip" at one point, and made sure I got The Hat

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released, I was 14 and still going through my awkward/depressed/frightened adolescent phase. And brother, did I need a hero then! Perhaps that's why I enjoyed Temple of Doom more than my peers. I can crystallize my love of the film in the scene where Indy frees the slave children of Pankot palace. He's just rescued the damsel in distress with a little help from his sidekick. He stands at the entry to the mine in challenge, righteously angry, ready to free the slaves and set things right while dramatic, stirring music rises triumphantly behind him. You want to join him in the battle to follow. Jeez, that was great. Hell, it's still great! And like I said, I needed that sense of fearlessness when I was 14. Some guys get a surge of adrenaline from watching Rocky whup ass. For me, that adrenaline came from watching Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom; that was perhaps my favorite moment in movies.

By the time Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out, I was 20. I was mostly out of my awkward, fearful stage, and Ford had gotten what was then considered a little old to be making action films. Narratively, Lucas decided to add Sean Connery as Indy's father and comic foil. Marcus and Sallah had become bumbling caricatures of their previous selves, and everything was a little too cute and comical, sort of like Return of the Jedi compared to The Empire Strikes Back. I finally pinned down why I didn't like Last Crusade as much as the first two films: everyone was too clean. Indy has a habit of coming out of these films covered in dust, cobwebs, cuts, and bruises. As usual, he kept his hat on through the whole thing, but it barely had a crease when it was all over. Still, the hero rode off into the sunset, all was right with the world, and life went on.

So imagine my surprise when Spielberg, et al., decided to bring Indy back. Ford is now 64, portraying 57-year-old Indiana Jones, part-time professor of archaeology and stalwart defender of truth, justice, and the American way. He looks about as well as one would expect him to look 27 years after the first film was made. Heck, I should be in such good shape at my age! But when you see the whip crack and Indy leap back into action, you believe it. One goes to an Indiana Jones film to be entertained, not to observe deep character studies. Still, one has to ask: can a cranky 64-year-old Harrison Ford still wow 'em like cranky ol' 37-year-old Ford did? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

There's a certain sillier-than-usual quotient in the central premise of this film (what movie people call "the MacGuffin"), but if you can buy a mild-mannered 20th-century professor going off to become a globe-trotting adventurer in search of the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, then I guess you can buy the latest magical plot device. No, I won't spoil it for you.

The tone of this film is different from the others, perhaps because Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford are all getting older. The film is a lot more domestic than the others, meaning both that it's dealing with more down-home issues and that much of the action takes place in the U.S. We still get "the map," though, and at least some globetrotting, with a plane in the background following the trail and a red line to mark progress. Crystal Skull is also a lot more "talky" than the other films. Jones even has a moment where his professorial habits come out in the field, something that never happened in the earlier installments. Like his creators, Indiana Jones has to face the fact that he's getting old.

It's a pleasure to see Karen Allen return as Marion Ravenwood. Allen's character can't help but admire Jones with a goofy school-girl-crush look that disturbs her son, Mutt, who's a refugee from The Wild One or The Blackboard Jungle. Okay, one spoiler here: Mutt appears as Indy's son, and it's funny to watch Indy's attitude toward the kid change once he learns this fact. This being an action film, we don't get a lot of time to see the father-son relationship to develop. In this, The Last Crusade was superior.

Still, in the end, I'd rank this film my third favorite in the series. One primary reason? We see Indy getting dusty again. Crystal Skull has violence, dust, dirt, and cobwebs galore. Indy comes through in the end, perhaps not as ambitiously as before, but as heroically as ever. I think Harrison Ford can hang up the hat and whip now. As Indy tells Mutt at one point, "You don't have to prove you're a tough guy all the time." Harrison Ford has more than proven it, time and again. He can march off into the sunset, proud of a job well done.

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