`INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE'' set a record as soon as it opened - becoming the all-time champion for box office earnings on a single day. True, the previous champ wasn't exactly distinguished: the impossibly crude ``Beverly Hills Cop II,'' starring Eddie Murphy as a wisecracking policeman. But a winner is a winner, and there's no disputing the built-in popularity of the ``Indiana Jones'' format that director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas have so cleverly cooked up. Indy's third offering pulled in more than $10.5 million May 27 and set house records at many theaters, according to Variety, the entertainment newspaper. Looking beyond opening day, its first 12 days reportedly pulled in $70 million - dwarfing even the mountainous earnings of Indy's last outing, ``Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,'' not to mention the adventure that started his career, ``Raiders of the Lost Ark.''
What's causing all the excitement? Nothing very new or different - that's for sure. ``The Last Crusade'' is just another yarn about Indy Jones, the handsome archaeologist with a taste for risky projects, colorful sidekicks, and exotic locations. This time his father, an archaeologist with a quieter and more scholarly style, has disappeared while researching the Holy Grail and tracking down its centuries-old hiding place. Adding spice to the story is a likable cast including not only the expected Harrison Ford and Denholm Elliott but also Sean Connery, an inspired choice as Indy's feisty pop. The settings of the story range from the Middle East to the heart of Germany in the Nazi years.
Since a zillion moviegoers will see any Indiana Jones film no matter what reviewers say, there's little point in reporting whether ``The Last Crusade'' thrilled or bored me more or less than its predecessors did. As it happens, Indy's new escapade seems reasonably fresh and energetic much of the way, although it bogs down in a silly chase (on a military tank) just when it needs a shot of real inventiveness, and the last third has more than its share of heavy-handed and even hackneyed moments. The film's style is a tad more muted than it might have been, as if Mr. Spielberg were tiring of his own visual pyrotechnics, but it maintains the formulas that have made the series so successful.
More important to observe is that Spielberg and Mr. Lucas have toned down some distasteful angles that made their previous collaboration, the ``Temple of Doom'' adventure, not just frivolous (as Indy's stories invariably are, almost by definition), but downright offensive. True, the main female character of ``The Last Crusade,'' played by Alison Doody, has a nefarious streak that prevents her from being a true heroine and revives old stereotypes of the scheming, two-faced woman who can't distinguish between facts and emotions - and shouldn't be trusted even if she could. Yet she's more resourceful than the woman Kate Capshaw played in ``Temple of Doom,'' a continually helpless damsel who needed rescuing every two minutes and did more hysterical screaming than Fay Wray in the original ``King Kong.''
Also soft-pedaled in ``The Last Crusade'' are the racist implications that became uncomfortably strong in ``Temple of Doom,'' where Indy strutted like a Great White Hero among people of color who were consistently helpless, villainous, or both. I don't think Spielberg or Lucas consciously intended any racist or sexist reverberations in that movie, but they should have been far more alert when they decided to base their Indy series on styles borrowed from Hollywood matinee serials of 40 years ago. Unfortunately, they picked up some very dubious baggage along with the appealingly nostalgic nuggets they unearthed and recycled. It's encouraging to see that they mostly avoid this trap in their latest venture.
In other ways, ``The Last Crusade'' is about what you'd expect from the people who made it. Lucas likes to pull a father-figure out of his hat when he's ending a trilogy; so the senior Mr. Jones makes an appearance here, just as Darth Vader turned out to be Luke Skywalker's benign daddy when the ``Star Wars'' series drew to a close.
Also predictable is the film's simplistic treatment of themes from religion and myth. In the first Indiana Jones picture, ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' the biblical Ark of the Covenant almost fell into the hands of bad guys, who would have used its ``awesome power'' for evil ends - and ``The Last Crusade'' follows exactly the same pattern, only with the Holy Grail this time. It's curious that Spielberg and Lucas see these venerated objects not as symbols of divine inspiration but as repositories of a blind, undiscriminating force that can be wielded (like the three wishes from a genie or a magic lamp) by whoever gets their hands on them.
The same way of thinking crops up in other contemporary films, such as ``The Seventh Sign,'' in which the heroine prevents some biblical prophecies from coming true, thereby delaying the end of the world for another millennium or so. This all adds up to a foolishly superstitious view of religious themes - especially disappointing when coming from someone like Lucas, who's allegedly a sincere student of religious and mythical motifs in world culture.
This may be taking ``Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'' more solemnly than it deserves, but since so many people will see it, we'd best be aware of the notions it embodies and the messages it delivers.
On the evidence of ``Willow'' and the Indiana Jones pictures, Lucas seems permanently stuck in a trivializing attitude toward the timeless material he likes to employ. Spielberg has shown a bit more potential for growth, moving toward a more mature world view in ``The Color Purple'' and ``Empire of the Sun'' than he showed in his earlier films. ``The Last Crusade'' is a step backward for him, but backwardness is an integral part of the Indy series right from its kiddie-matinee origins. Here's hoping its more careful approach to matters of race and gender indicates a new thoughtfulness that will continue to be felt in later Spielberg films.