Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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To enjoy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, you pretty much have to erase your memory of the three Indy films that came out before it.

This fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series has a total sci-fi bent whereas the originals were exclusively supernatural. The world Indiana Jones lived in has always been inhabited by dangerous villains and cool supporting characters, but the ones he encounters in his newest adventure are tame and poorly defined. More importantly, the temples and tombs our iconic swashbuckler used to raid were always so elaborate and fraught with danger, but with his newest Kingdom that Indy unlocks, he pretty much just walks through the door. There are no booby traps, no intricate puzzles to solve or bad guys to pose a serious threat.

If Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ended with a sunset, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes place in the twilight between dusk and dawn. We are told that nearly everyone Indy knew from his previous adventures has passed away. Even those pesky Nazis who caused Indy so much trouble in the past have disbanded, only to be replaced by the seemingly less challenging Russians circa the Cold War.

Having lost the race for the atomic bomb with the United States, the Reds kidnap Indy with the intention of forcing him to find a hidden artifact with mysterious psychic power that they plan to use to convert the world into communists.

Of course, Indy escapes, after which he meets a switchblade-wielding greaser named Mutt played by Shia LaBeouf. Slicking his Hugh Jackman Wolverine-styled hairdo with a pocket comb dipped in Coca-Cola, Mutt is nowhere near as cool or brave as the young actor seems to think he is. And though it has been revealed that Mutt is in fact the son of Indy, if I were Dr. Jones, I would have demanded a paternity test.

Evading the Russkies, Indy and Mutt eventually make their way to South America, the land of Mayans and action-set pieces. Unfortunately, many of those action-set pieces are less than spectacular or flat-out goofy.

We see the Russians driving an elaborate deforestation vehicle that saws down trees and grinds them into pulp. The very sight of this machine made me look forward to the elaborate sequence wherein Indy would no doubt fight a bad guy while trying to avoid its path of destruction. Unfortunately, Indy merely blows up the mechanical tree-chomper with a bazooka before it can ever be used for any real dramatic effect.

Even worse, while dangling from a vine, Mutt begins swinging through the jungle with a bevy of computer-animated monkeys as if he were Tarzan. It was at this point that the movie stopped being an Indiana Jones film for me. Such cartoony foolishness is more in line with Brendan Fraser's The Mummy series. Sure, a lot of kids will like it, but the adults who grew up with the real deal will know the difference.

It's no wonder that star Harrison Ford seems eager to hang up the fedora by the end of the film.

Maybe it's a good thing for ford. At 65, he's older than Sean Connery was when he portrayed Indy's elderly father nearly 20 years ago. Rocky Balboa and Die Hard 4 might have proved it's not impossible to be an action hero and AARP member at the same time, but Ford doesn't seem quite as battle-ready as Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone were in their last on-screen adventures. Also, the stuntmen, who obviously replaced Ford whenever he attempted a feat more demanding than scaling a flight of stone steps, are so much more lithe and spry than the actor that it's distracting.

The fact that I've gone through this review without mentioning the contributions of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas speaks volumes about what they managed to do for this film - or didn't do for that matter.

The Spielberg and Lucas who worked on this film aren't the ones who crafted Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead, we got the guys who made Hook and The Phantom Menace. The Indiana Jones series that Spielberg/Lucas created had a slow-cooked matinee quality to it, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels comparatively rushed and poorly planned. It's as if neither of them tried. Then again, considering that computer animation has made Spielberg's and Lucas' jobs so much easier these days plus the fact that their movie will probably make wads of cash regardless of its quality, who can blame them?

Me.

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