Long story short:
The first half of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is in serious contention for being my favorite Indiana Jones movie.
The second half, not so much.
But overall, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
I knew we wouldn’t get another Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is, for my money, as entertaining and as exciting and as fun as a movie can get. Can’t be done. Science, God and The Universe just wouldn’t allow it. But what we got had the spirit down pat, even during the times when the execution threatened to take away from its sense of wonder.
In the 19 years since The Last Crusade, nobody talked about another Indiana Jones movie more than director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas and Indy actor Harrison Ford. Scripts came and went. So did the years. And suddenly, we had a movie.
I love the opening right down to the title fonts and the way the cinematography settles on the Atomic Cafe sign as the kids in the roadster careen away from the caravan of military vehicles. It’s 1957, and kids, we already know there’s something not quite right on American soil.
And then the Russian commando team cuts down the American guards in a sad and shocking moment, and then …
… they sweep in around the car, perfectly choreographed, guns pointed menacingly at the trunk.
Why do a dozen armed men need to be worried about what’s in the trunk?
Because what’s in the trunk is Indiana Jones.
When they drag him out and throw him brutally to the ground, I thought to myself, “Wow, Harrison Ford still knows how to fall like Harrison Ford.” And the shot where he stands up and brushes himself off and puts on his hat, his shadow falling across the sunlit olive of the army car …
Well, it’s as epic as it gets.
It turns out the Russians want Indy to guide them through the very same warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was entombed at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
(“Our best scientists are studying it,” my ass!)
But what they’re looking for might just rival the power of God in a box.
And they’re at Area 51! Be still, oh my heart that got its start checking out books about UFOs and Sasquatch from the school library and still has just as much fascination for that kind of thing as it ever did.
Enter Dr. Col. Irina Spalko, played with delicious zest by one of my favorite actresses of all time, Miss Cate Blanchett. Spalko is hot and weird and odd and immediately cements herself among the great Indy villains, even though I wish we’d seen more of the supposed psychic powers she hints at in the opening sequence but never mentions again. Oh, well.
Anyway, the warehouse is all thrills and excitement, with cracking whips and those trademark wet-snap-crack Indiana Jones punch noises and Harrison Ford doing a massive amount of his own stuntwork.
I’d like to say I’ll be in that kind of shape when I’m 65, but I’m not in that kind of shape now. Wow.
The rocket sled bit, with Indy stumbling around when he stands up before falling backwards and over, is brilliant. A classic Indiana Jones escape. And then it leads into a sequence that should have been utterly ridiculous but somehow plays out as entirely believable.
Indiana Jones gets nuked in a refrigerator.
But it works! And it’s hilarious and it’s thrilling and I couldn’t stop smiling, and how spooky was the shot of him standing on the hill watching the mushroom cloud bellow up and out over the Nevada desert?
And then the next scene is even more awesome! I love the interrogation, with Harrison Ford looking like a million damn dollars in a white T-shirt and his gray hair all disheveled as a couple of FBI agents grill him over the details of what the Russians were after.
(Did you notice that one of them was the janitor from Scrubs?)
It’s a great scene because we see another glimpse of the caged-animal Harrison Ford we got in a similar scene with the two very suspicious cops in The Fugitive. “I fought with this man. He killed … my wife. You find this man.”
(Did you know that scene in The Fugitive was improvised? Ford didn’t want to know what questions the actors playing the cops were going to ask him. Yes. Greatest American Actor of All Time.)
I love the idea that Indy was one of the doctors who examined the Roswell alien from the saucer crash of 1947.
And if you don’t believe aliens crashed in Roswell in 1947, well, I don’t know what to do with you.
Back to the university now. Only Indiana Jones can go from fighting Russians and getting nuked to standing in front of a class of kids. Only these days the girls don’t look at him with the same googly eyes, and when the dean pops in to interrupt his class, it’s not Marcus Brody.
So let’s take a moment to remember the dearly departed Denholm Elliott, who was pivotal to my absolute favorite Indiana Jones scene of all time in The Last Crusade.
The new guy is Charlie Stanforth, played by the wonderfully talented Jim Broadbent. Charlie pulls Indy outside and tells him the feds are pushing hard, and that he’s out of a job.
I love the ferocity with which Indy rebukes Charlie’s words, and then the shame when he realizes that Charlie quit his own job to protect him.
And so they head back to Indy’s house for one last drink before Indy heads elsewhere, to London, maybe, to try to teach there.
What we get here is one of the film’s most touching and beautifully written/acted scenes. Indy sits down heavily at his desk and looks at faded photographs of Marcus and his father. “It’s been a brutal couple of years, Charlie. First Dad, then Marcus.”
And then Charlie says, “Indeed. It seems we’ve reached the age when life stops giving things and starts taking them away.”
Yeah. I had a couple of tears in my eyes. So sue me.
So Indy hops a train, but the Russian spies are in hot pursuit. Luckily an angry young man named Mutt Williams, played by the better-in-every-movie Shia LaBeouf, whisks him to a diner on his motorcycle and tells Indy tales of crystal skulls in South America and how the Russians have kidnapped Indy’s mentor from back in the day, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), and Mutt’s mom, Mary.
(At this point, Indiana Jones is the only person in the history of time and universe who doesn’t know who “Mary” is.)
And this leads to yet another great Harrison Ford acting moment, when he says, “There were a lot of Mary’s, kid,” and Mutt pulls a knife on him. “That’s my mom you’re talking about!”
Indy’s response is so unexpected and perfect. Gently, with wisdom and goodness, Indy puts out his hand and soothingly tells Mutt to calm down, reminding him that he doesn’t have to get so angry all the time to show how tough he is. Another example of sterling acting from our main man Mr. Ford.
But the Russians have followed Indy and Mutt to the diner, and the escape and subsequent chase through the streets and halls (and even the library) of the university is all the stuff great Indy escapes are made of.
(I was laughing like crazy when the Russians were being hit in the face by the “Commie go home!” protest signs as they drove through the crowd of protesters, and there was a lot of Sean Connery in Harrison Ford’s reaction to the critically timed defacement of the Marcus Brody statue. Brilliant.)
At this point in the film, I was in heaven.
Indiana Jones in the atomic age!
1950s UFO mumbo jumbo!
But once Indy and Mutt get to South America, the film became a bit too much of a typical jungle adventure for me. Not that that’s a bad thing, and Indiana Jones still does jungle adventures better than anybody else. I just wish the second half had been more like the first in terms of tone and scope.
But what the second half has that the first half didn’t is … Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood.
And kids, there are still few greater thrills in film history than the way Marion crosses her arms and bites the words “Indiana Jones” out of the air. And she’s still every bit the firecracker she was 27 years ago.
The big chase through the jungle is filled with good ideas and more than its fair share of honest-to-goodness thrills, but there’s also too much poorly rendered computer assistance going on. (Compare this sequence, for example, to the horse/carriage chase in The Mask of Zorro where all the derring was done with real stunt men.) Or, for that matter, compare it to the brutal, visceral thrills of the tank battle in The Last Crusade.
But the moments that are real really connect. The swordplay between Mutt and Spalko is top notch, and Cate Blanchett proves her self quite fast and efficient with the martial arts.
The most unforgivable sequence in the entire film is the digital Shia pulling a Tarzan through the trees with a bunch of similarly digital monkeys. Are you kidding me? Steven Spielberg does real action better than anyone else, and should therefore know better than anyone else when it comes to stuff like this.
I’d have had Shia make one swing, on a real vine, screaming the entire time out of fear for his life before crashing painfully but effectively into Spalko’s jeep.
And then there’s the whole thing with the three waterfalls that’s so silly that it doesn’t even feel dangerous.
But the fight near the giant ants is cool, and no actor on the planet can dish it out — or take it — like Harrison Ford.
I got over all of that, though, every time Indy and Marion were bickering. (And I wish they’d given Karen Allen more to do than just stand around so much of the time.)
My favorite Indy/Marion moment is when they’re on the truck and they’re yelling at each other and she says, “I’m sure there were plenty of other women!”
He snaps back, “There were a few!”
Marion: “Oh yeah? Well what was wrong with them?”
And he stops and looks at her and says, with the rascally charm that only Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones can muster, “None of ’em were you, honey.”
And then he runs off to do an Indiana Jones thing.
There were a few things that bothered me. What the hell did Indy expect when he sent the deliriously insane Oxley to get help in the jungle, when he knew damn well that the only other people in the jungle were the Russians who wanted to kill them?
What was the deal with Indy bull-whipping Mac (Ray Winstone) at the end when they’re escaping the temple, when Mac had betrayed them numerous times and was perfectly capable of walking out by himself if he chose to?
But though much trash has been talked about the aliens and the flying saucer at the end, I’d like to remind the naysayers that Indy also drank from the cup of Christ and watched a guy have his heart yanked out of his chest before being lowered — still alive, mind you — into a pit of lava.
It’s Indiana Jones.
And in this movie, even when the unfortunate influences of George Lucas’s lazy reliances on childish humor and computer effects try to derail the thrills and the wit, I got Indiana Jones.
And I thank Harrison Ford for that.
It’s the little things. Like the way Indy tells Mutt to value his mom, because “you only get one, and sometimes not for very long,” which is a sad reminder that Indy lost his own mother at a young age.
So, yes. I’m a big fan of this movie. I wish the second half had been as tight and as smart as the first half, but it still won me over just the same.
And the moment where Indy plucks his fedora out of Shia’s grasp and plants it smoothly on his own head? Awesome. That being said, I wouldn’t be opposed to another chapter with Shia playing Henry Jones III while Harrison provides some Connery-esque grumpiness and guidance.
Or, “Call it a rope! Call it a rope!”
Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones.
And I love that.
What did you think?