Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

After nineteen years of rumors, false starts, and mounting expectations, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has, in all honesty, more weight on its shoulders than is fair for what just aspires to be a lighthearted, easy-to-watch, fun, goofy adventure movie. It's not a movie that can be approached with the heavily cynical eye of a critical, jaded adult who is too judgmental for no-frills adventure. It's for your inner eight year old. You know, the one who isn't bothered by the fact that none of the theoretically highly-trained enemy soldiers can shoot the broad side of a barn, let alone Indiana Jones. If you're a child of the 80s, like me, it's for that young version of you who was enraptured by the wisecracking, John Williams-scored adventures of Indy on VHS, and I have to say that little Tim really, really enjoyed the new Indy flick. I'd solidly place it as the third best movie of the series.

And that's not intended as a backhanded insult. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are both in my top 50 movies of all time. The classic adventure that is Raiders needs no defense, and although Crusade is fluffier and more polished, it's also hysterical and has the legendary interplay between Ford and Sean Connery. It would be absurd for me to place a standard like "Top 50 or bust!" on a new film before watching. No, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not one of my new top 50 movies, but what it is is a fuckin' adventure flick that kept me grinning like a retard at the circus for the entire runtime.

Eight-year-old Tim doesn't care about the logic of what Indy survives that he shouldn't, he cares about goofy action. He cares about Harrison Ford cracking wise, all the time. He cares about deadly natives and giant ants, Commies getting their comeuppance, Jeeps chasing each other through the jungle, swordfights, goofy sidekicks, and Indy whipping dudes, all scored to a John Williams soundtrack. And make no damn mistake - this movie has all those things.

Of course, the Indy movies ain't shit without Harrison Ford, and 65 or no, he's back and actually badass onscreen for the first time since Air Force One over a decade ago. This needs no elaboration - he's goddamn Harrison Ford, arguably the greatest leading man of all time, and he does what he does best. I like the way they addressed his age in the movie - it's not like Rocky Balboa where it's part of the plot; this is in no way a character study of an older Indiana Jones. That would be depressing and not an Indy flick. But his age is far from ignored either, it's brooded on briefly at the beginning, fully acknowledged, joked about a few times, and that's about it. It addresses the issue just as much as it needs to but doesn't let it get in the way, and you forget all about it soon enough as Harrison Ford becomes Indy again.

As for the rest, Shia LaBeouf is pretty entertaining as Indy's primary sidekick; he obviously can't measure up to Sean Connery, but he earns some laughs, carries his own with the energy of the piece, and is a damn sight better than Short Round. It's mad classy that they brought Karen Allen back after almost three decades, and although she's obviously older, it was exciting to see Marion onscreen again. And the harsh, cold-bitch style of Cate Blanchett's evil Commie commander is entertaining and bizarrely enough the most attractive she's ever been on screen. Thumbs up all round here.

The action is by and large pretty damn satisfying. Punches aren't pulled because Ford is in his 60s - the man gets in a hell of a lot of fights with hulking Commies, gets punched in the face, gets shot at, takes mighty falls, rough and tumble. Best of all, there's a huge damn stunt team in the credits and it shows. You can tell that almost all of the physically-intensive stuff is actually done by real humans, doing it, filmed. Trained stunt men and women, not risk-free CGI cartoon actors. For a few flaws where the movie uses CG where it shouldn't (I'll elaborate on this in a moment), this category isn't part of it. Even better than stunt people, a lot of a big motorcycle chase scene partway through is actually Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf themselves. Very cool.

There's also a big, elaborate set piece involving Jeeps in a jungle that incorporates rifles, turrets, cars ramming cars, cliffs, explosions, rocket launchers, sword fights, flying debris, tossing about valuable artifacts, leaping from car to car, and more about halfway through that really steals the damn show. It had me cackling with glee, and reminded me of the tank battle in Last Crusade - that's a high compliment.

And as for the music, it's John Williams. It's solid, it's fun, he makes great use of mixing and composing the root Indy theme in various ways. It's not as wall-to-wall catchy as Crusade (which I think has the best score of the original three), but it's the most reliable composer in the biz doing what he does best. In non-Williams music, they use an Elvis Presley song to establish the 1950s setting in a way that I thought was sublime, and a great weaving of pop culture you wouldn't normally associate with the Indyverse seamlessly into it.

But now, as I admitted before, it's far from perfect. My problem isn't that Indy survives things he obviously couldn't, as so many on the Internet love to complain about. I absolutely couldn't care less. In fact, some of the more complained about beats in that regard are a couple of my favorite in the movie. But I do have gripes, a couple visual and a couple plot related.

Visually, while I love the work they did with the stunts as opposed to CGI for everything, there are a couple elements that were CGI where they shouldn't have been. Specifically animals. There are several CGI gophers where there should have been real, trained gopher "actors," and it's a small thing, but it made me feel like I was watching Madagascar and ruined my focus on the movie for a moment. And there were CGI monkeys where there didn't need to be any monkeys, which was even worse. Thumbs down for that. Also, the fringe-heavy lighting with popping foreground players from bright backgrounds was really, really different from the unilaterally warm, blended-colors look of the first three films. Spielberg claimed before shooting that his DP was going to try to "learn" the look of the guy who did the first three movies, and if he put in an effort, it really doesn't show. It's not visually bad at all, but make no mistake, it IS visually unique from the other three.

And a few plot / thematic gripes. As I said, it was great to see Marion Ravenwood again. All non-idiots know she's the best Indy girl. However, it was a bit disappointing that her role in the film was completely incidental, she got introduced so late in, and she really didn't get to do much of anything. She was just a tag along. Also, the climax felt a little bit like it was suffering from Raiders-wannabe envy.

Also, although there is certainly some violence and deaths in the flick, and in Indy tradition some mummified corpses show up, there isn't really any "Holy shit!" moments of terrific pulp violence to rival Alfred Molina's legendary "Adios, Sapito." death, the Nazi propellor shredding, or the melting of the bad guys from Raiders, the heart-ripping from Temple, or the shooting of four Nazis with one bullet or Donavan's ill-advised aging adventure from Crusade. Not to say Kingdom is "tame," but it's just slightly sanitized in comparison, which is a shame, because I know that when I was a kid those "holy shit!" pulp violence moments were the best.

But I don't mean to sound down on the film, I just mean to talk honestly about it. The fact that I can address such specific little complaints shows how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, making these few little bits stand out. And if you can bottle up that cynical you that wants to shout that Indy surviving that doesn't make any sense, why can't these trained Commie soldiers hit anything, that's silly, and so on, I think you'll enjoy it too. It ain't perfect, but it's a damn Indiana Jones adventure, and it's definitely better than Temple of Doom. So lower your age as much as is necessary to eliminate the grown-up inside you who won't love the movie for what it is, check it out, and have a damn good time. I definitely did.

3 Stars out of 5

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