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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 02:30 pm

Crack that whip!

Uneven Indiana Jones returns after too long a delay

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Running time 2:04 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Running time 2:04 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Let’s be honest: Bringing back one of the most iconic figures in cinematic history after a 19-year absence is an act fueled by hubris or foolhardiness. Watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though, I got the sense that director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and star Harrison Ford just wanted to have fun and are eager for the audience to come along for the ride. That’s all well and good, but, amid all of the slickly produced derring-do, more than a few opportunities for putting a more complex and satisfying spin on the character and his times were missed.
Area 51, the fabled city of El Dorado, space aliens, Mayan culture, and the Red Scare all play a part in this far-reaching adventure, which finds Indy searching for a former colleague, Professor Oxley (John Hurt). The delivery of a cryptic letter from Mutt Williams (Shia La Beouf) gives Jones the first clue to his associate’s whereabouts. Seems he’s uncovered the location of a mysterious crystal skull that he has set out to return to El Dorado, deep in the Amazon — an act that will give him fantastic power. The only problem is that Oxley’s gone missing and a detail of Russian soldiers, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), is hot on his trail. The film captures the spirit of the series’ best moments in the first 20 minutes and then fails to build on them. With the exception of a slickly executed chase sequence that finds Indy on the back of a motorcycle being navigated by Mutt through heavy traffic, the film’s first hour is bogged down in seemingly endless and repetitious exposition that, in the end, means nothing. Really, the plots in all of the Indiana Jones films have been disposable, serving as nothing but clotheslines on which to hang elaborate action sequences, but in this one the line begins to sag and the film flirts with tedium as Indy and Mutt go to Peru in search of Oxley, explaining in far too much detail the meaning of every archaeological clue they uncover. Equally frustrating is the most visually striking moment in the film, which is treated as a throwaway moment. Early on, Indy stumbles into a fake neighborhood that’s been constructed on a hydrogen bomb test site to measure the amount of damage the device will cause. Watching Jones running through suburbia is amusing, but the sight of him minutes later, looking up in wonder up at a blossoming mushroom cloud, brilliantly underscores the idea that Indy is a man out of time with ideals that are a thing of the past in the face of this sort of technology. The film would have been much richer had it delved further into the character’s thoughts about being so out of step with the times. Inexplicably, the film doesn’t give us Indy’s old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) until its second hour, and it suffers for the delay; the pair’s antagonistic chemistry gives the proceedings a much-needed spark. Once the setting shifts to the Amazon, the movie finds its footing; there, Spielberg and his crew revive the go-for-broke cliffhanger spirit that made the original films such favorites. A breakneck chase through the jungle, imaginative fights, gruesome deaths, and a wonderfully ridiculous, over-the-top conclusion justify the viewer’s patience.
In the end, Skull proves a mixed bag. It’s a shame that Spielberg and Ford did not return to the series earlier, perhaps exploring Indy’s World War II adventures while Ford was of an appropriate age to do so. (Though there’s a hint of further entries, the actor will likely not take center stage in them.) This fourth film is better than none at all, and though Skull may disappoint some, true fans looking for nothing more than a piece of old-fashioned entertainment will be glad to see the man in the hat once again. 
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