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INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

Review by Mark Walters

I am a hardcore Indiana Jones fan - have been since I first saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK back in 1981. I was 7, but remember it like it was yesterday. The character of Indy was just so cool in my eyes. I think it's safe to say that franchise was more special to me than even the original STAR WARS trilogy, and for someone from my generation, that's saying a lot. There's been rumors flying for the past decade that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were wanting to make another Indiana Jones movie. God knows Harrison Ford has been in desperate need of a blockbuster hit since AIR FORCE ONE, which was in 1997 by the way. For the past 10 years Ford has basically been walking through the same "gray-suited everyman protecting his family" role, never really wowing audiences the way he used to in the eighties. Being such a big fan of Ford, I sat through all of those misfires of recent years, all the while wishing he would just hurry up and do another Indiana Jones flick. And now, at the age of 65, he finally has. So after 19 years since INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (yes, it's been that long), can Indy still conquer the box office the way he used to?

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL opens in Roswell, New Mexico, circa 1957. A convoy of army vehicles arrive at a military base (Area 51), but it quickly becomes obvious the drivers are not who they appear to be. They are in fact Russian soldiers, led by a potentially psychic woman named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). And they've brought with them, in the trunk against their will, Indiana Jones (Ford) and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone). It seems Miss Spalko wants Dr. Henry Jones Jr. to assist them in finding a rather specific crate inside a warehouse he's all too familiar with (remember the end of RAIDERS?). After a daring escape, which tests each audience member's beliefs of reality, Indy finds himself questioned by the CIA. Back at his current college, Jones suffers from his recent actions when the new dean (Jim Broadbent) is forced by the review board into firing him. We learn through their conversation that Indy has already lost his father and good friend Marcus Brody, and now it seems he's lost his livelihood as well. Upon leaving town by train, Jones is stopped by a motorcycle-riding temperamental greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who requests Indy's help in saving his mother and a mutual friend to both men, Professor Oxley (John Hurt). Both have been kidnapped in their pursuit of a mysterious crystal skull, believed to be hidden in a mythical Mayan city. With the KGB hot on their tail, Indy and Mutt must run to Peru following Oxley's trail, and hopefully thwart the kidnapping before it's too late. But what is the mysterious secret of the crystal skull, and can this mismatched duo possibly overcome those who clearly outnumber them?

 Being the fan that I am of Indy, I've really wanted this movie to happen, and I'm very glad that it did. That said, I tried to go into this with low expectations, just in case it didn't live up to the lengthy wait involved, or the amazing hype it's received. From the moment he appears on screen, clad in that classic fedora, Harrison Ford is once again the Indiana Jones we all remember. He's older, sure, and there's no attempt to hide that from the outside, but he's still Indy. He's still that cocksure tough guy everyone loves, and it's a joy to see him back on the big screen. But something is decidedly different. One of my favorite scenes in RAIDERS involved the now famous truck chase toward the end, in which Indy is shot in the arm by surprise. Blood splatters on the windshield, Jones winces in pain clutching his arm, and we genuinely get the sense that our hero could potentially not make it through this ordeal. It was a vulnerability that humanized the otherwise confident hero. That's one of the qualities I loved in Indiana Jones... and it's completely absent here. In CRYSTAL SKULL, Jones is not only indestructible, but seems barely phased by the intense physical stress thrown upon him, which would easily test the limits of a man 1/3 his age with twice the physical prowess. Somehow this Indiana Jones has strengthened with age, to an unbelievable degree too. Now I know when we go to see an Indy film, we expect him to kick ass and rarely flinch, but there should still be limits. Shia's portrayal of Mutt Williams is done competently enough, but there's sadly not much substance to his character. He's just there, and doesn't do a whole lot more than watch Indy save the day. Mutt gets one major action scene in which he must become the hero, but it's sadly a rather silly scene with an almost appalling Tarzan tag joke. If he's meant to carry on the torch, they really need to flesh out his character in the next outing. Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood, and her re-entry to the story is one of the best  moments in the film. But again, outside of a thoroughly satisfying bit of banter between her and Indy in the back of a truck, Marion has little dialogue to work with, and ends up being little more than just a driver during the latter of the film's chase scenes. I wanted more of her, and more of her and Indy talking. Cate Blanchett isn't bad as the villain, but she's not interesting enough to outshine those who came before her. It's safe to say Irina Spalko is a little more of a definitive caricature for an Indy foe, but in the end she's not all that memorable. Ray Winstone to my surprise is totally wasted as Mac, the new sidekick of Indy, thrust upon the audience without any explanation, which doesn't allow us to invest much toward feelings for him. Some of the other supporting cast members, like John Hurt as Oxley and Jim Broadbent as Dean Stanforth, are charming faces and a welcome addition to the screen, but like most of the other roles aren't given a whole lot of meaty dialogue. Broadbent has one of the best lines in the movie, which comes in an early scene that may be the most humanizing moment for Indy.

 What ultimately hurts this film is the script, which is complicated to say the least. There are a few too many characters to keep up with, and it bogs down the already stretched out story. In fact the multiple scenes of Indy and his "team" don't often feel right, because Indy never gets to shine on his own. In RAIDERS he frequently takes on the baddies going solo, in TEMPLE OF DOOM he gets multiple fight scenes away from Willie and Short Round, and even in LAST CRUSADE Indy must retrieve the Holy Grail on his own. In CRYSTAL SKULL he's never alone, even in scenes where he easily could (or probably should) be. Another problem lies in the believability of the action scenes. They are so incredibly over the top, it frequently becomes frustrating even to the most forgiving action movie lovers. I heard more groaning in the audience during this Indy than in any other. Sure, the theater should be expected to go in with a certain suspension of disbelief, but there is a line there which shouldn't be crossed... and in this outing it frequently is. There are also a few rather corny sequences that stick out like sore thumbs, and I wish they had been a little more discerning while editing. Watching this movie is like watching Steven Spielberg and George Lucas fight over who gets to do what. There are scenes that are clearly Spielberg, and other scenes that are clearly Lucas. It's obvious they wanted this film to lend itself to a video game concept, and while kids might enjoy those moments, the average moviegoer is bound to engage in some serious eye-rolling. The other thing that may ultimately hurt this is the strong sci-fi angle which takes the place of the previous film's religious themes. It may just be too much of a departure for Indy enthusiasts, though one can clearly see George Lucas' love of 1950's sci-fi cinema. Some critics have griped about the heavy use of CGI, and how it sticks out like a sore thumb. While I felt the CGI was incredibly well done, I couldn't help but agree that it changes the overall feel of this being an "Indiana Jones" movie, because in many parts it just looks SO different from what we're used to. The score by John Williams is amazingly under whelming, and outside of some throwback pieces to the previous film's scores, offers nothing memorable. I know, hard to believe... and I love John Williams too. Lastly, the ending of the movie (which I will not spoil) feels very thrown together. In fact, it almost perfectly copies the ending of THE MUMMY or even THE MUMMY RETURNS, so much so that it felt a little lazy.

 Does it sound like I hated this? I ask because I didn't hate it. I just didn't love it, and I wanted to love it. It reminded me of sitting through STAR WARS: EPISODE I in 1999... it was still clearly STAR WARS, but it wasn't as good as I remembered STAR WARS being. My biggest fear is whether or not this Indy outing will withstand the test of time. Have you watched EPISODE I lately? I have, and I barely made in to the end. I don't want to feel that way about this Indy film, and I'm afraid ten years from now I just might. But in defense of CRYSTAL SKULL, there are some truly great moments for folks like me in this film. The first half of the movie is particularly good, and in some ways makes up for the second half's shortcomings. Lucas should be commended for adding a few lines of dialogue which definitively connect this Indiana Jones with the Young Indiana Jones series (when Mutt and Indy first arrive in Peru), and while those lines are unexpected they should be extremely pleasing to Indyphiles. When Indy first lays eyes on Marion halfway through the film, his reaction is utterly priceless, and about as perfect as you could hope for. Ford has plenty of chances to utilize the classic Ben Burtt punching sound effect, and his fight scenes are not only convincing but just plain fun to watch. The cinematography is excellent (I love me some Janusz Kaminski), and gives the film a classic look without losing the high quality capabilities of modern day cameras. And last but certainly not least, the film runs about two hours and three minutes with credits, making this outing just the right length for a big summer blockbuster. I feared an extra and rather unnecessary 20 to 30 minutes, but was thankfully not subjected to it. I'm still without a doubt an Indy fan, and I do look forward to seeing what will almost certainly come next, but one can only hope that those involved will learn from their mistakes this time around. One thing is for certain, even at 65, Harrison Ford can still play the man with the hat to near-perfection.

BIGFANBOY.com score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, I give INDY 4 an 8.


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