It's been 19 years since the last Indiana Jones movie, which helps explain the hysteria leading up to the release this week of Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." For the past month you couldn't open up a paper, surf the Internet, or turn on the TV without hearing about this film – this event.
For those of us who do not regard the series as the pinnacle of Hollywood action-adventure escapism, all this hoo-ha may seem like a bit much. But then again, the three previous installments – "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" – made $1.2 billion worldwide. The ka-ching factor is so high that it's no wonder pulses are racing.
The Indiana Jones movies began as salutes to the cheapo Saturday-afternoon serials that Spielberg and series producer George Lucas devoured as kids. But there's nothing cutrate about the budgets for these escapades. "Crystal Skull" weighs in at $185 million. I usually make it a point to review a movie, not its cost. But that's a lot of wampum for what is essentially – well, a Saturday-afternoon serial. These Indy films are not indie films.
Harrison Ford, complete with fedora and rucksack, is back as Indiana. Did you ever doubt it? He may be 65, but he does a manly job of holding down the part. In fact, nothing much has changed with Indy – he's still surly and afraid of snakes.
But a couple of key changes have occurred around him. For one thing, the time frame has now moved up to 1957. Make way for the cold war and the Red scare. Early on, Indy runs up against Col. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Stalin fave and three-time winner of the Order of Lenin who, with Indy held at gunpoint, engineers a raid on a top-secret US Army warehouse in Nevada containing mummified remains of … well, let's just say the box is marked "Roswell."
From this it is but a short leap – and there are many leaps in this film, short and long – to the discovery deep in the Peruvian jungles of the Crystal Skull of Akator (don't ask). Colonel Spalko wants to track down the origin of the skull, which she believes will grant her eternal knowledge – i.e., power.
At least Spielberg and Lucas and screenwriter David Koepp haven't brought back the Nazis for a third tour of duty. Not that Russkies are much of an improvement. Neither is it such a great improvement to saddle Indy with an equally surly young sidekick, Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf, who's a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." The pairing is all too obviously a ploy to attract a younger demographic, but I don't think the series needs this sop. The previous installments have been hugely successful with kids who only know these movies on DVD. Much more welcome is the return of Karen Allen as Indy's old flame Marion Ravenwood, even though they spend most of their screen time together bickering. Allen still has the most captivating smile in the business and she knows how to be spunky without being cloying (not as easy as it sounds).
How does the new Indiana Jones movie stack up with the other ones? I'd place it somewhere in the middle, but since, as I say, I'm not a die-hard enthusiast, that's faint praise. All of the films seem too overly engineered, too by-the-numbers, too pushily "iconic." Spielberg is such a fantastically adept filmmaker that, even when he's working at half speed, he can work up a pretty good action sequence. But even the best set pieces in "Crystal Skull," like the pursuit of Indy through the Amazonian jungle by the KGB, or a dive over a triple-decker waterfall, have a déjà vu quality.
"Crystal Skull" is a fun ride, but if we have to wait 19 years for the next one, that's OK by me. Grade: B. (Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.)