By Ty Burr
*** (three stars)
No, it’s not as good as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Don’t be silly. Lightning can’t be bottled twice, no matter how skilled the vintners.
Instead, Steven Spielberg's “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is merely grand old-school fun – a rollicking class reunion that stands as the second best entry in the venerable series. Premiering Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival and opening worldwide on Thursday, the new movie is leagues better than 1984’s nasty “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and blessed with more snap and heart – more fun – than 1989’s pro forma “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” All that's lacking is a genuine sense of surprise. It's very possible that was left out on purpose.
The emphasis in “Crystal Skull” is on old-fashioned stuntwork rather than the shiny chimeras of modern digital effects. When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) catapults from the back of a motorcycle through the window of a speeding car, out the opposite window and back onto the motorcycle – his feet nervously skitching along the roadbed – at least half the excitement is knowing that motorcycle, car, Ford, and road are real.
Thankfully, the approach goes only so far. Character and star may have aged two decades since the last installment, but bullets still miss the good guys with astonishing regularity, and Indiana Jones may be the only person who could escape a desert nuclear test site with an A-bomb due to land in ten seconds. How he manages this makes no blessed sense, but it’s a hoot anyway.
That scene occurs in the movie’s first fifteen minutes, in the sort of fast-charging prologue Spielberg and producer George Lucas know we’re expecting. The sequence also establishes the time (1957), the enemy (Russian Communists), and the stakes (power over all of mankind – the usual).
Better, it reintroduces Indy as a believably older but still absurdly capable figure out of a Saturday matinee serial, and it brings on Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, a Red menace with a sword, a Louise Brooks bob, and a nifty accent by way of Natasha in the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. “Drop dead, comrade,” the hero sneers at Irina, and that’s a good description of the best “Indiana Jones” villain yet: She’s a drop-dead comrade.
To sum up the plot of “Crystal Skull” requires dancing around a number of spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to go in with a clean slate. What Spalko and her KGB minions are after is a rare and very strange crystal skull that legends say was stolen from El Dorado, the lost city of gold in Peru. One of Indiana’s colleagues, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), has set out to find it and disappeared, and a young man named Mutt (Shia LeBeouf) arrives to beg Jones to rescue his old friend.
This being the 50s, Mutt is first seen riding a motorcycle with his cap akimbo just like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” He’s a preppie who has dropped out to become a greaser instead of a beatnik, and the sequence in which he and Indiana careen through the college campus (inside the library and out) with Russians in high-speed pursuit is an early high point.
It’s bookended later in the film by a delirious action set piece involving multiple jeeps, a sheer cliff face, monkeys, vines, and a ravenous army of giant ants. (This last leads to one of the few gross-out scenes in “Skull,” which is noticeably less gruesome than the other sequels. It’s still a bit too spooky in places for young children.)
The basic structure of these action scenes hasn’t change in 20 years, but camera technology and Spielberg’s skill at deploying it have. There’s an organic smoothness to the mayhem that can take your breath away, so much so that the less inspired aspects of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” stick out more clearly.
It’s wonderful, for instance, to see Karen Allen reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood from “Raiders,” since her warmth was precisely what was missing from the first two sequels. (Let us now officially forget all about Kate Capshaw and the unfortunate Alison Doody.) The script doesn’t give Allen quite enough to do, though, and the family dynamics that take over the last third of the movie feel overly familiar.
Indeed, a number of Spielberg career threads are woven into “Skull,” including a climactic shot that blatantly rehashes the finale of one of the director’s best-loved early films. While Ford wears the fedora with believably weathered panache, on some level this Indy seems smaller, less archetypal than his younger incarnation. Where the character once towered over these movies, now he’s just the leader of the pack.
The rest of the cast keeps pace – Ray Winstone as an accomplice who may or may not be a betrayer, Jim Broadbent taking over for the late Denholm Elliott as Indy’s college friend. LeBoeuf has an interesting alertness that he still hasn’t figured out how to use as an actor, but he throws himself into the stuntwork like a proper student at the feet of the masters.
It bears asking, though: What do we want from an “Indiana Jones” movie in 2008? Engaged nostalgia, I think, and on that level “Crystal Skull” delivers. Some may be disappointed that Spielberg and company haven’t invested the series with the latest in computer boffinry or that the new movie treads comfortably (sometimes too comfortably) in the footsteps of its forebears. This isn’t a reinvention but a reunion, of characters, creators, even techniques. “Same old same old,” Jones says at one point, and that’s what we get. The action may have been updated to the 1950s, but in ways both inspired and unexamined, “Indiana Jones” remains happily stuck in the 80s.