© 2008 Ray Wong
Fourth time is a charm? After 19 years, Indiana Jones emerges from the ruins of Hollywood past in search of the box office gold. Is it a glorious return or just the same old, same old?
The story opens in 1957 when a group of Soviet agents, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), kidnap Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and partner Mac (Ray Winstone). Apparently, there's something in a hanger in Nevada that the Soviets desperately want. It turns out to be a mysterious, magnetic "body." Indy escapes but the Soviets disappear with the body.
Under suspicion by the US government, Indy's tenure at the university is abruptly terminated. That's when a young greaser, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) seeks him out. Mutt is a student of Indy's colleague, Dr. "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt) who has been kidnapped while searching for the legendary Crystal Skull. Apparently, the KGBs are also looking for it. Together with Mutt, Indy tries to find the mystery behind the skull which, as legend has it, would lead them to the lost city of Akator (or El Dorado). They must rescue and find the city first before the Soviets catch up with them.
Reprising his role as the iconic Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford (Firewall) is still dashing, charming, and full of his trademark humor and vigor. Sure, he's almost 20 years older since he last donned his hat and whip, but Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. There's no substitution. It's a joy to see Indy doing all his tricks and stunts (with the help of some very good stuntmen). It's also wonderful to see Karen Allen (Poster Boy) as Indy's old flame Marion Ravenwood. Unfortunately, Allen's character doesn't have the same gravity and relevance as she did in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the spark between Marion and Indy is still there, as well as the bickering and genuine affection. It's a joy to see them back together on the big screen.
A new character, Mutt, is introduced and played by Shia LaBeouf (Transformers). He plays the role -- a clueless rookie thrust into an adventure he didn't ask for -- well enough but somehow Mr. LaBeouf seems to be Shia LaBeouf the actor in every film he's been in. I'd very like to see him get out of his shell and become the characters instead. There seems to an idea that someone is hoping to pass the torch of the Indiana Jones series to LaBeouf -- I hardly think he's ready yet. Prolific Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) goes over the top as the KGB. She's fun, what with her funky accent and hair. But ultimately, her role is very two-dimensional.
Ray Winstone's (Beowulf) role is seriously underwritten but he adds the right humor to the film. John Hurt (Hellboy II) and Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz) also add their professionalism to the film as Ox and Dean Charles Stanforth respectively.
The screenplay, written by David Koepp (War of the Worlds) based on the story by George Lucas (Star Wars) has all the typical Indiana Jones ingredients: mystery, paranormal events, adventures, out-of-the-world places, super villains, campy one-liners, and a lot of running and chasing. It should be a guaranteed good time, right? Unfortunately, what has transpired seems to be a hodgepodge of ideas, a hot stew of half-cooked bologna. No, we don't expect Indiana Jones to be Shakespeare, but at least the last three films had coherent plots that actually made sense. Here, Lucas and Koepp have come up with an outlandish premise that expands to a bunch of mismatched plots mixing legends and genres. The central plot loses its focus because of that, and there are so many plot holes and unresolved questions even for Indiana Jones.
Also, while there is plenty of their trademark humor, including a few winks at the first trilogy and the TV series (Young Indiana Jones), sometimes such humor feels forced and artificial, as if the writers are saying, "Here, we need a laugh. There, we need a quip." It feels like they're trying too hard to repeat what they did some twenty years ago. The result is less genuine and more manufactured.
Director Spielberg (War of the Worlds) still has what it takes when it comes to popcorn entertainment. The production is fantastic, the stunt work amazing, and the special effects impressive. The production design is a nice throwback to the action films of the 40s and 50s. In fact, there's one extended segment that is a clear nod to the 50s. Sadly, it's also one segment that seems unnecessary and outright implausible, even for Indiana Jones. Also, I think Spielberg misfires as far as pacing is concerned. There are some great sequences, of course (such as the hilarious car chase on campus). However, the beginning of the film drags, as well as the middle, with many scenes of people sitting around doling out information. The expositions are boring. There are also many shadows of the previous films, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, but without evoking the same sense of awe and wonderment. There's a lot of wandering around with no special purposes except to, well, make the character wander around. The pace finally picks up in the Amazon jungle when the group gets closer to finding Akator. That's when the treasure hunt, the adventure, the action and the humor finally come together. Unfortunately, it's a bit too much, too late.
Don't get me wrong. Crystal Skull is a perfectly fine action adventure for the entire family to enjoy (there are, however, some scary moments too intense for the younger kids). It just requires you to completely suspend your disbelief, more so than any other Indiana Jones movies. Too many "WTF" moments if you try to think, and they all add up to an unsatisfying film. If you have never seen Indiana Jones before, it's an okay introduction to the franchise. If you're a fan, however, you may be sorely disappointed by this overblown installment. The Kingdom of Indiana Jones may be crumbling, even as it does outstanding numbers at the box office. We fans deserve more.
Stars: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Writers: David Koepp, George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 9
Total – 7 out of 10