Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" movie review by Ben Kenber

Man! I was so frackin’ lucky to see this before I flew out of LAX on Friday. I was afraid I would have to wait a whole week to see this one, and it brought back bad memories of when I was forced to wait to see some of the movies I desperately wanted to view. Fortunately, I managed to get off of work early and haul ass to the nearest movie theater to view a movie 19 years in the making before I had to rush off to the airport.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is another in a long line of films listed as “the most eagerly awaited film in movie history!” However, what the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Matrix” sequels taught us (whatever you thought of them) is that the expectation of something tends to be far more exciting than the actual finished product. That always works against movies like these because we are just soooo excited about them, and they never meet our expectations. Ever since I saw “Star Trek V – The Final Frontier,” I have done my best to keep my expectations at bay. It is way too easy to be disappointed by a movie that you restlessly wait for. I came into the latest adventure of Indiana Jones just wanting to have a good time, and you know what? That’s exactly what I got!

The newest Indiana Jones movie is not without its flaws, as is the case with all the sequels in this franchise. The script at times is rather convoluted, and it’s a little hard to figure out what the whole deal with the crystal skull is (a second viewing may end up rectifying that). It's no “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but to expect it to be is ridiculous. The first adventure of Dr. Jones is such a classic and held so far up in the pantheon of movies that it is impossible to beat it in terms of its entertainment value and freshness. Just seeing Harrison Ford put on that fedora one more time was more than enough for me.

This movie moves Indiana Jones to the 1950’s, and the Nazis are all gone (just as well). In their place are the Russians, the villains of choice back in the 1980’s until US relations with them improved. Indy and his pal 'Mac' George McHale (Ray Winstone, the voice of “Beowulf”) have been captured by the Ruskies and taken over to Area 51 in New Mexico, the warehouse where the US government hides all the things it wants no one else to see (The Ark of the Covenant makes a cameo appearance). This leads to the first big action sequence that gets the movie off to a quick start and has those “whoa” moments that I am always looking for in action movies. Indy’s final escape from the area does seem a bit ridiculous, but these movies deal with death-defying actions, and these are stories that take a place in a reality somewhat removed from our own.

Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (his real name as we learned it from “The Last Crusade”) still teaches archaeology courses at the university he has always taught at, but soon finds himself dismissed as he is under suspicion of being a Communist. Back in the days of the Joseph McCarthy era, you were guilty until proven innocent. Time has certainly for Indy and his university friend Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent from “Hot Fuzz”), and they have both lost friends over the years like Indy’s father and Marcus Brody (played by the late Denholm Elliott, who is appropriately acknowledged here years after his death). Just as Indy heads off to go around the world, he is visited by Mutt Williams, a 50’s greaser played by Shia LeBeouf. Mutt informs Indiana that his mother has been kidnapped, and that she needs his help to get to this Crystal Skull. This artifact promises to give one power when it is returned to its rightful place, an immense power that the Russians want every bit as much. It is a little bit hard to describe what the big deal is about the Crystal Skull in words, and it is likely that I will be viewing this movie again soon to be sure.

The Russians are led by Irina Spalko, and she is played with utter relish by Cate Blanchett. She is a cold, steely woman whose interest in psychic powers and education in said subject proves to be more dangerous than anyone can realize. Like all the villains in this franchise, she lusts for ultimate power and will get it at any cost. Of course, her lust and greed will lead to her eventual undoing. You know how these Indiana Jones movies go. Irina may not be the greatest villain in this franchise, but she is still a formidable foe as embodied by Blanchett, one of many actresses out there who can play just about anybody.

The movie features great stunts that, even if they are not entirely believable, still generate a good deal of excitement. Some are ridiculously over the top, like Shia’s character swinging along vines with the monkeys. But then again, not everything in this movie is meant to be completely believable. Spielberg said he would not rely so much on CGI effects in this movie, but you do notice them when you see them, and it does take away from the action a little. In the end, the movie keeps up at a pace which never lets up so that you can catch your breath.

Many have said that Harrison Ford is just too damn old to play this part, or to be in any action movie at all. This was probably brought up more when he did “Firewall” which ended up doing poorly at the box office. Frankly, I am sick of all this talk about him being at the AARP age level. Ford certainly doesn’t look his age, and he still handles the action scenes with a gusto that you never doubt. No one will ever surpass Ford in this iconic role, and I would hate to see anyone else try. God forbid Michael Bay tries to remake any of the other movies here!

But one of the real masterstrokes that Spielberg and Lucas did hear was bring back Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Indiana’s love from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It is so great to see her again as she matches wits with Indiana at every step of the way. Marion also turns out to be Mutt’s mother, and this leads to other revelations that I invite you to see for yourself. There is a line in the movie where Marion and Indy are in the back of a truck trying to escape, and she asks Indy why his other relationships didn’t last, and Indy says:

“Because they weren’t you Marion.”

This points the obvious of how the other heroines of these movies didn’t even come close to matching the wonderful presence of this character, and Karen continues to be such an immensely engaging presence in this and other movies she does. Her character is not like the whiny bitch Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) from “Temple of Doom,” nor is she the underwritten cold character played by Allison Doody from “The Last Crusade.” It is clear that everyone involved knew that they could do no worse than to bring Karen back. I am very glad that they did.

The big surprise I got from watching this movie was the performance of Shia LeBeouf. I expected him to be an annoying sidekick a la Short Round from “Temple Of Doom,” and essentially give us the same performance as he did in “Transformers.” That was not the case at all as he perfectly slipped into the mold of a 50’s greaser out to save his mother. He matches wits well with Harrison Ford as they journey together to other countries on a search and rescue mission. Thus, we get another one of those scenes where we see a map and a red line showing where our heroes are going, silhouetted against the planes and other transportation they use to get to their final destination. Shia is very good here, even if he does end up on the verge of some Wesley Crusher-like moments.

Ray Winstone is also very good here, as he is in just about everything he does. At first, I started to think that his character was somewhat unnecessary, and was basically there as a foil for both Indy and the plot of the movie. However, Ray’s performance helps to make some of the more implausible moments in the film actually believable as he sucks us into what his character wants, and he convinces us of this as much as he does Indiana Jones.

I have to give the filmmakers some credit as they took their iconic hero and placed him in another period of time. To have Indy fighting the Nazis would have been overkill, and we already know what happened to them. Having Dr. Jones go up against the Russians showed that at least the filmmakers were trying something a little bit different instead of just giving the audience the same old thing. There are a lot of moments where Spielberg and Lucas pay homage to the earlier Indy movies as well as to other Spielberg movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” There is a big sci-fi element to this movie in particular which was not as big as in the other movies, but these movies have always indulged in the world of fantasies be it real or imagined.

There is actually a surprising lack of snakes in this sequel, but one does make a memorable cameo appearance. The main animals to fear here are red ants who, even in their CGI form, are terrifying man and woman eaters. We even worry about them devouring the bad guys. Even if the angry red ants do look a bit fake, they still left me unnerved like all the dangerous animals in an Indiana Jones do.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is by no means a perfect movie, but then again, we had no right to expect it to be. None of the sequels in this series were perfect either, but whatever flaws they had were eventually redeemed by their entertainment factor which was far above most other action films you see. The only movie in this franchise that has any right to be called perfect is “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and nothing is ever going to top that. Ever.

I would probably rate this particular sequel just right above “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” While that one may have been a little more entertaining, it also had a first half and characters that drove me up the wall. It doesn’t have the same amount of heart and character as did the 1st or 3rd movies in this franchise, but those characters still remain true to their origins and they keep us engaged in the action. In the end, it is pointless to get too critical on the Indiana Jones movies, let alone this one. To take it apart limb from limb would take the fun out of it, and these movies are really made for the moviegoers more than anyone else. No one should ever come into any movie expecting it to be a classic, and it certainly goes with this one.

In terms of the summer movies released so far, “Iron Man” is still the movie to beat. “Indiana Jones 4” is not able to beat it out there, but “Iron Man” is a strong movie for more or less the same reasons that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was when it was first released. They both brought a freshness and energy to their genres that had felt somewhat dormant, and they were created by filmmakers who cared about the stories and the characters that they were bringing to the screen. “Iron Man” will eventually lead to a number of sequels, most of which will probably not hold a candle to the original. While we want some of the same old stuff, we also want something new that brings a new edge to what we saw before. With the latest adventure of Indiana Jones, it was business as usual, and that was more than enough for me.

And stop telling me that Harrison Ford is too old to be doing movies like this because frankly, I don’t give a shit!

*** out of ****

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