Monday, May 26, 2008

Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

There is a point in the latest Indiana Jones movie where Indiana Jones and ex-girlfriend Marion Ravenwood are sinking in quick sand and are shouting for companions Mutt Williams and Professor Oxley to help them get out of the sinking sand. This shouting takes place despite the fact that they are in the midst of trying to escape from their Russian captors. While they manage to survive the jungle death trap, they fall right back into the hands of their Russian captors for the third time (out of four total) in the movie, and this is barely passed the one hour point!

It was at this point that my enjoyment for the fourth Indiana Jones movie (subtitled the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) was doing something that Dr. Jones himself was having trouble doing; escaping.

The Plot
We pick up in 1957; 19 years after Indiana Jones embarked on The Last Crusade. Indiana Jones is “recruited” by Russian spies to break into a secret American warehouse (one that should appear familiar to most Indy fans) to find a mysterious mummy that Indy helped recover 10 years prior. After a heroic escape, Indiana Jones is accused of being a Communist and is about to lose his job at the university.

Indy is informed by Mutt Williams that Indy’s old friend Professor Oxley and Mutt’s mother Marion have been kidnapped by the Russians in a plot involving the search for a crystal skull linked to Mayan legend. With Mutt at his side, Indy embarks on a journey to find the crystal skull and rescue his friends before the Russians are able to use the skull to unlock a mystical power that will help tip the balance of the Cold War in their favor.

The Good
First off, I’m a huge Indiana Jones fan. I’ve grown up with Indiana Jones, have made a couple Indiana Jones videos as projects for school and have my own fedora. For me Raiders of the Lost Ark remains a classic masterpiece with excellent writing, direction, music and acting. It’s almost perfect in every way. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom while not as good as the original is still able to hold its own and is by no means bad. And The Last Crusade is an absolute delight, not only for the story and adventure themselves but also for the wonderful interactions between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery as father and son. When rumors started circulating several years ago about a fourth installment, I remained skeptical given the amount of time that had passed since The Last Crusade. Harrison Ford was, by no means, young anymore.

However, Harrison Ford remains the movie’s strongest element. Not only does Harrison Ford easily slip back into the role of Indiana Jones and is an absolute delight to watch, he is also believable in the action sequences. Mr. Ford is 65 looking like he’s only 55! It is probably the strongest performance from Harrison Ford, that I can recall, in years. He looks like he is having a blast and is still able to kick butt and take numbers as he goes along. Considering whether or not Harrison Ford could still play Indiana Jones believably was one of my gravest concerns, my concerns were laid quickly to rest.

Surprisingly, Shia LaBeouf is able to hold himself well against Ford. While he seems a bit awkward in his opening scenes and, at times, seems to try too hard to act “tough”, he plays the rebellious 50’s greaser quite well. However, I still don’t quite buy the young Mr. LaBeouf being able to sustain his own spin-off from the franchise as it appears to be what they are attempting to setup.

The first half of the movie is pretty decent. While it drags a little, it manages to establish the plot quite well. The opening chase and shootout in the warehouse is done very well, and together with the bike chase a few minutes later, these two sequences make the film’s finest moments. The bike chase through the university campus is done quite well and effectively mixes humor and action, including a moment I found especially amusing as a throwback to The Last Crusade; at a particular moment, while Mutt is amused by a certain incident, Indy is not, giving Mutt a scornful scowl, reminding quite a lot of the looks that Connery often gave Ford in The Last Crusade.

The humor is ramped up throughout and I found it to be quite effective, from the brawl in the 50’s cafĂ©, to the bike chase, to the aforementioned quicksand scene which (while not logical) is still quite amusing to watch unfold.

The Not-So-Good
Now to get to the major weaknesses of the movie.

What was so good about the action in the first half of the movie was that it was done practically. One of the great strengths about the Indiana Jones movies is that all the action was done with the actors themselves or stuntmen. You felt the thrill of someone performing the stunts and actually doing what was seen onscreen. Unfortunately, much of the action in the last half, including the jungle chase, relies too heavily on CG. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Harrison Ford was actually being dragged by a truck after passing underneath it! What made it so fun and so thrilling is that it happened and that there was risk and thrill involved. That’s what made it so thrilling. In the jungle chase, all the thrills are gone because there’s no sense of danger because you know the actors are standing in front of a green screen. And unfortunately, given Steven Spielberg’s statements that there would be very little done in the way of CGI, the amount that is done is rather disappointing.

Also, my other big gripe about the action in the last half is that it felt like Indiana Jones was largely absent from the center of it. What made Indiana Jones so special in previous outings was that his sidekicks and ladies always stood on the sidelines and watched as Indiana got beaten to a pulp and yet always managed to come out on top. Only Indiana Jones could slide underneath a movie truck, then come back and throw the driver out the front windshield and escape with the Ark. Only Indiana Jones could cut a rope bridge in half and live to tell about it. Only Indiana Jones could fight the Nazis on top of a movie tank as it fell off a cliff and walk away to retrieve the Holy Grail. These things made Indiana Jones so special because he was always so lucky! But the only point that Indiana Jones felt lucky was when he climbed into a fridge (you’ll understand when you see it). This time, it felt like it was everyone else who was getting lucky while Indiana Jones was the one on the sidelines. You know there is something missing when you can’t recall a single triumphant rendition of the Raider’s March in the last half of the film because Indiana Jones didn’t do anything particularly heroic.

Next, there are moments that come across as way over-the-top and are just unnecessary. Such moments include gags involving Mutt being repeatedly hit in the groin while standing between two jeeps as they speed through the jungle, while at the same time taking part in a sword fight with Cate Blanchett. Another moment is Mutt finds himself trapped in some fines with monkeys, and before you know it is swinging through jungle from vine-to-vine like Tarzan! I couldn’t help but wonder just what was going on!

While Harrison Ford is back in top shape and Shia LeBeouf does an admirable job as Mutt Williams, the rest of the characters are not well-written at all. Unfortunately, great actors like Cate Blanchett (as top villainess Irina Spalko), William Hurt and Jim Broadbent are wasted in worthless roles. While they do what they can with the underwritten material, you can’t help but feel that their time was wasted. Also, what was the point of having Marion return? Aside from the fact that she is there to deliver the crucial line that Mutt is Indy’s son, there is very little reason for her to be in this movie. Not even the closing scene between her and Indy is able to makeup for that, especially since at no point did it feel like that was where the characters were leading up to. Not only did Marion return out of nowhere, the closing outcome between her and Indy felt like it came out of nowhere because nothing took place to lead up to that! It doesn’t help that Marion is nowhere near the same character that she was in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Where Marion was able to drink a grown man under the table and still manage to fight in a burning bar moments later, this Marion feels defanged and like the only bite she has left in her is to bicker with Indiana Jones.

The Nazis were wonderful adversaries for Dr. Jones in the previous films, but unfortunately, the Russians don’t quite measure up to them. There is nothing menacing about the Russians, nor is there anything menacing about the top henchmen nor even Irina Spalko herself. You know the top henchmen Dovchenko doesn’t pose much of a threat to Indy because Indy just about kicks his butt at the outset of the film. And there is nothing threatening about Blanchett’s Spalko. She is nowhere near the same level as previous Indy villains. She is neither spooky nor seems particularly menacing, nor do we completely understand her motivation for pursuing the crystal skulls.

Spoilers ahead! This brings me to the story. While there is nothing wrong with using the crystal skulls as the film’s Magoffin considering there is actually a myth surrounding them, the ultimate revelation at the movie’s climax is rather disappointing and ultimately mind-boggling. All I can say is that this is truly the work of George Lucas, who is not the magical filmmaker that he was in the 70s and early-80s. The origins of the skulls and the influence those origins had on Aztec society seem extremely out-of-place in an Indiana Jones movie. As soon as I saw where the movie was heading halfway through, I couldn’t believe it and kept saying there had to be someway of getting around what they were setting up. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that that was exactly where they were taking it. I found myself extremely disappointed.

The movie’s climax felt like a mix of three different movies. One element felt like a throwback to the melting Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Another element felt like a throwback to the attempt to save Elsa at the end of The Last Crusade. And the final element felt like a throwback to, yes I’ll say it, The X-Files. Unfortunately, where The X-Files succeeded, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fails. At least that element had a place in that movie.

Anyone who has followed the progress of this movie over the years will know that it has taken years to get this movie off the ground and that many, many drafts were thrown out because one of the three major parties needed to sign-off on it (Ford, Spielberg and Lucas) were not happy with it. And much was made not too long ago about Ford and Spielberg being happy with a script but Lucas was not. All I can say is; this is the script it took 19 years and many drafts to finally film? It feels like this script was a mish-mash of previous drafts, taking elements from each one, to hopefully make an acceptable collage of what everybody liked. This could've used a few more rewrites and an all-new payoff, because the movie's climax felt very lacking.

The Final Rundown
For me, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade remain the two best films in the series, while The Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are the weakest. It seems Indiana Jones has his own version of Star Trek’s odd-even curse; the even-numbered films are the weakest.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
is exactly a bad movie; it’s just not exactly a necessary one. As I left the theater, I found myself having been entertained, and at the same time very disappointed and wondering what the point of it was. While Harrison Ford was able to successfully able to slip right back into the fedora, it doesn’t seem like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were able to do the same. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t have the same fun feeling to it of its predecessors, nor does it have the same magic.

1/2 (of 4)


Barbara said...

I went to see this movie last night. The rest of the boys saw it on the weekend, and gave me little tidbits about it. From what they had said, I didn't think I would enjoy it as much as the others ... well, I was wrong. It was a great Indy movie, right up there for me with the others.

Although Indy shared the fighting scenes with several others, it was cool to see a younger Indy coming up in the ranks.

The only thing I could have done without was the alien scene at the end.

Dave said...

Thank you for the review. I may see it in the theatre, but then again, I may wait for the DVD to come out.

Christian Camuti said...

I enjoyed the movie and whatever "weird" elements that might have been in it, for me those were secondary to seeing Indy again after 19 years.

I do agree that Indy really never much escaped from things as he has done in the past. The final push towards the climax was kind of lackluster as there were no realy booby traps or other dangerous elements. In the past, Indy would have been far more cautious entering a Mayan temple. I am thinking specifically of the opening scene in Raiders.

I think this could be one of those movies where the more times one sees it, the more he/she will appreciate it. I will save my $9 and wait to buy it on DVD in a few months for $15 or so then I believe my feelings for this latest chapter will grow.

I think there could be an Indy 5 with Indy and Mutt getting together again. We shall see!

Evie said...

Thanks for the review. I love Indiana Jones, but sometimes the best thing to do with something that works well is to leave it alone.

Catharine said...

I'm still waiting to go see it. I think Indy could do no wrong for me!