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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Crack the Whip (Indiana Jones)

Indiana Jones and the Evil Empire

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The first thing we hear in Indiana Jones and the Kingdomof the Crystal Skull is Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and the first thing we see is a hot rod full of carefree teenagers, zipping around a U.S. Army convoy as if daring it to a drag race. The tone is breezy and the time and place are established with smooth efficiency: It’s the 1950s and the convoy is headed for one of those Trinity, Area 51 bases hidden in the rocky no man’s land of the American West.

The first we see of the storied Indiana Jones is his famous rumpled brown hat tumbling from an official vehicle at the base. Next comes his reflection on the car door. The visual storytelling is masterful, stating the scenario without a word of explanation. Russians disguised as American troops have kidnapped Indy. They have seized the base, the very warehouse where the Lost Ark was deposited at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie, and are forcing the world’s most famous fictional archaeologist to locate a top-secret crate of special interest to the Kremlin.

Played by Harrison Ford like a man whose breakfast consists of half a lemon with no sugar, Indy is visibly nonplussed and itching for action. Within minutes, he snatches a submachine gun with the aid of his trusty bullwhip, overpowers a dozen men half his age, outruns a hailstorm of bullets along a catwalk, survives an unanticipated ride in a rocket car and, finally, escapes an atomic test with T-minus 15 seconds and counting.

By the end of the day, Indiana Jones looks as scuffed as a pair of comfortable old shoes, worn at the heels but intact and presentable. That’s pretty much how Ford embodies his character; Indy endures a steady trickle of old-age jokes, but shows the younger generation that his mind is as powerful and his brawn as potent as ever.

Wisely, the producer-director team of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took the passage of time into account. It’s been 19 years since the last Indiana Jones movie and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set 19 years after its predecessor. The enemy this time is a different set of antique villains with the Soviet Union filling the jackboots of Nazi Germany. In a bid for moviegoers unborn when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade hit the multiplexes, Lucas-Spielberg cast heartthrob Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s sidekick, Mutt Williams. Riding a Harley, sporting a leather motorcycle jacket and carrying a switchblade, Mutt represents the disaffected youth of the ’50s. LaBeouf is a poor substitute for Marlon Brando or James Dean as a wild one without a cause, but then, no one ever went to an Indiana Jones flick for great method acting.

Indy’s foe is the Soviet scientist Spalko, in search of an Incan “crystal skull” whose powers of clairvoyance and mind control may have military applications. For Spalko, Cate Blanchett channels Greta Garbo’s performance as the Soviet commissar in Ninotchka; she plays Spalko as Garbo with a gun, funny in her humorlessness. She also carries a rapier and enjoys swordplay, putting an androgynous edge on the performance. Several characters return from previous installments, including Mac (Ray Winstone), who had devolved into a greedy double-dealer; and Indy’s one-time love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). You can see it coming as plain as a Mack truck with its headlights on bright: Marion is Mutt’s mother and Indy is the boy’s long-lost biological father.

Early on, Indy becomes a person of interest to the FBI; his office is searched and he is forced into a paid leave of absence from the university because of McCarthyism. The implications for the present day are clear, yet the possibility of a more interesting plot is quickly jettisoned. When Indy and Mutt fly to Peru to battle the Reds for the crystal skull, the movie becomes a long series of car chases along jungle roads, rope-swinging romps and encounters with quicksand and man-eating red ants. Many of Spielberg’s persistent interests come to play, including the skull as a remnant of extraterrestrial contact with Earth in ancient times. Erich von Daniken’s long-forgotten book about space aliens and the Incas, Gold of the Gods, seems to have influenced the screenplay.

The pulpy inspiration of the no-budget, B-movie cliffhangers that Lucas and Spielberg devoured as children is still visible among the big-budget special effects. Some of Crystal Skull’s best scenes employ old-school stuntmen; some of the worst appear computer generated. After a while the movie sinks into visual overkill, but it never ceases to be a fun amusement ride, a cinematic roller coaster of thrills and spills and laughter more engaging than Lara Croft, National Treasure or any of the numerous Indiana Jones wannabes. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows that the original is still best.
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