Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - The Return of Harrison Ford

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - The Return of Harrison Ford

by Tony Dayoub

He's back! Not Indy. We've been expecting his return for 19 years. I refer to that other guy we haven't seen for so long. Harrison Ford is back! A little grayer, and a little more wrinkle-lined, he still displays the same twinkle-in-the-eye he always has when rendering Indy, his best-loved character. I thought that twinkle died right around the time he did Air Force One. The actor most closely associated with the mega-blockbusters of recent times had been phoning in his performances ever since then. I'm not sure if it was deliberate, but anyway... whatever the case... Indy seems to have lit his spark again in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And to their credit, the creative team of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have made sure that the character has evolved even if the B-movie-like story hasn't, at least not by much.

The story: It's 1957, and the Red Scare wave of paranoia is cresting. Kidnapped by Soviets led by a psychic Stalin-ite (Cate Blanchett), Indy is forced to help them find a mysterious corpse, in Nevada's infamous Hangar 51, that may or may not be an alien. He foils them, of course, but not before giving us another great opening sequence. What does he get for his trouble? The FBI investigates him as a person of interest, calling his World War II military exploits into question. Into this comes a young greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), with news of the disappearance of a couple of mutual friends tied to the mythological crystal skulls of the title. And spearheading the race for the skulls on the side of evil, is Blanchett's Irina Spalko.

The movie has the requisite acknowledgements to past adventures, including a quite funny one to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the opening sequence, and thematic references to The Last Crusade's young-vs.-old humor in the relationship between Indy and Mutt (sorry, Temple of Doom fans, no references to the underrated redheaded-stepchild of the franchise). The same way Connery (cinema's original action star in his 007 franchise) figuratively passed the action-hero torch to Ford in the last film, Ford seems to be doing the same to The Transformers' LaBeouf in this one. But wait a second Mr. LaBeouf. I like you and all, but you are no Harrison Ford. And the movie's epilogue has a gag that confirms Spielberg and Lucas' reluctance to bestow the young actor with the crown too quickly.

Rooted in the B-movies of the fifties, the way the earlier ones were in the thirties, the film's plot is not original, but there are plenty of surprises and treats along the way. Spalko is a formidable adversary, and probably Indy's best since Raiders. Karen Allen's return as Marion, gives the film some of the heart that had been missing in the last two films. For fans of the Young Indy TV show who hoped that the series would not be brushed under the carpet, don't worry, it's not. Aside from the rather oblique references to the show in Indy's references to his exploits as an OSS spy in WWII (he had also been a spy in WWI in the TV series), there is a more direct reference to one of the episodic adventures midway through the movie. And don't ask me why, but I was impressed by the minimal supporting part that Igor Jijikine plays as Spalko's henchman, Dovchenko. Maybe it's his resemblance to Lawrence Montaigne (The Great Escape) on steroids.

Of course, it's Ford that carries the movie. And though he actually looks a little creakier when cracking the whip, he looks like he's having more fun. Indy's physical ability has always been secondary to his charm. Maybe the increasingly morose roles he has chosen in the intervening years haven't given him the same opportunity to display the roguishness he did as Indy. But Crystal Skull allows him to while still accepting that Indy is much older. He falls a little faster when punched by the Soviets. He's a little more wistful when he sees Marion for the first time. And he is much more his father's son than he used to be, going into scientific explanations about their predicament while sinking in quicksand.

You stand to be disappointed if you go into this movie expecting the second coming of Raiders, as many in the press seem to have. After all, Raiders is arguably the best film that Ford, Spielberg or Lucas have EVER done. This is just a fun little gem more akin to The Last Crusade. Catch it at a matinee, the way you were meant to.


Adam Zanzie said...

Glad you liked KOTC, Tony. The only thing I object to is your implication that Raiders of the Lost Ark was the best thing that either Lucas or Spielberg ever did. Lucas madebetter films with THX-1138 and American Graffitti; and don't get me started on Spielberg, who has fashioned so many superior masterpieces that there are almost too many to count.

Tony Dayoub said...

I stand by my comment. While I'm a huge Spielberg fan, and love almost all of his films, I must admit that they are generally flawed. That is why I can love Saving Private Ryan for instance, but can recognize that William Goldman was correct in much of his criticism of it:

"Ed Burns at the Cemetery

Hanks is dead, the awful pretentious voice of the actor playing General Marshall is treacling away, we hear ole Honest Abe's letter again and I am now waiting for the shot of Ed Burns with the big boobed girls back at the cemetery. Why do I know that is coming? Well, only two members of the squad are left, Burns and the cowardly translator and I know it can't be him because he was not with Hanks and the squad during the twenty-four minutes of glory at the start of the film. So it has to be Burns standing there among the graves.

Now the morphing shot comes-and I am looking at the old face of Matt Damon at the cemetery.
Well, you can't do that. Don't you see, he wasn't fucking there. He knew nothing of the attack on the beach, knew nothing of the odyssey that followed, and he never had a chance to hear about it. The only spare moment he had was when he was telling us all about his brothers and the ugly girl and setting the barn on fire."

I love Munich, one of my all-time favorite films in fact. It recalls the seventies thrillers that are so near and dear to my heart in both mood and execution. But it is extremely biased.

More precisely, the more he delves into historical FACT or MESSAGE films, the more I find flaws with his films. The closer he is to "Pure Cinema" the more successful I think he is. And if you look at his greatest films in that category (E.T.,CEot3K, Minority Report), Raiders is his greatest. It's near flawless.

Unfortunately, I think the power of the film as a standalone entertainment was undercut greatly by the varying levels of success of its lesser sequels. But I saw Raiders on its opening weekend and for 3 long years, when that film was the only Indiana Jones adventure, it was the standard for action adventure films.

As for Lucas... THX-1138 (the original not the jazzed up special edition which doesn't really count) was a great debut film, but its pacing seems off and it drags in spots. American Graffiti is a tougher one to go against, so I'll give you that one.

For more on my defense of Raiders read this post.

Adam Zanzie said...

Tony, I started reading this again--your post below my initial post led me to your defense of Raiders, which is very well-written. But I'm still having a difficult time wrapping my head around the notion that, in a career that has brought forth so many complex, intense masterpieces, Raiders of the Lost Ark could somehow be the finest achievement by the director of those films. How? The film is a great entertainment as well as a great collection of set pieces and homages to serial flicks, but what it doesn't have is the soul that, in my opinion, the crowning achievement of any great filmmaker absolutely requires.

For once thing, it isn't a personal film--I agree with Spielberg's biographer Joseph McBride that it's rather impersonal, for that matter. As far as Spielberg's other blockbusters go, it certainly doesn't have the personal themes of Close Encounters, E.T. or even the intensity of the relationships between Brody, Hooper and Quint as seen in Jaws. And is it superior to Schindler's List? You've already stated that you think it's better than Munich and Saving Private Ryan, but Schindler's List? I'm very curious to see how such a case can be made.

You've conceded that American Graffiti is a better Lucas film, but doesn't that, in turn, signify an opinion that American Graffiti is better than every single Spielberg movie ever made? I just can't help but think that to call Raiders Spielberg's best film is sort of like saying that Spielberg can't really do anything at all--that he's never accomplished anything superior to a dopey action serial, thus making him inferior to other great filmmaking artists and, especially, lacking the personal specialties that allowed them to endure in history as auteurs.

Tony Dayoub said...

One of the biggest differences between the way you and I see Spielberg goes to the crux of this question you are asking, Adam.

As I stated earlier:

More precisely, the more [Spielberg] delves into historical FACT or MESSAGE films, the more I find flaws with his films. The closer he is to "Pure Cinema" the more successful I think he is.

I find his personal films to be frustratingly near-great, only to be undone by some unnecessary gimmickry which betrays a lack of confidence in his film's argument. In SCHINDLER'S LIST it is the scene with the little girl in the red raincoat that sticks out like a sore thumb. In SAVING PRIVATE RYAN it is the superfluous framing sequence.

So I go back to my position that I prefer Spielberg in what you call his "impersonal" mode. Pushing the boundaries of film from a mechanical standpoint a la Hitchcock (who still let a little of the personal creep through, as does Spielberg. It's no coincidence Dr. Jones is dealing with a successor and ends up unwilling to pass on the hat; Spielberg is facing that in his career also). And despite loving many of his so-called impersonal films (E.T., CE3K, MINORITY REPORT) I generally vacillate between RAIDERS and TEMPLE OF DOOM as his best executed films, almost flawless (nobody's perfect).

As for Lucas, my concession IRT AMERICAN GRAFFITI was half-hearted. I haven't seen it in years (so that's why I admitted I may have to give you that one).