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.