Nineteen years is a long time in film. Franchises come and go, stars are born and heroes die. Before Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade there was no Matrix, no X-Men, no Spider-Man… There was barely even Batman and he’s since seen new beginnings. It may make some feel old, but the teenage targets of summer blockbusters today weren’t even born when Harrison Ford last donned the Fedora…
In that context, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ fourth Indy adventure –…And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull – is a bit of a punt. Kids have their own matinee idols and, by the laws of adolescence, they’re different from their parents’. “Iron Man could batter your old archaeology professor!” comes the cry from those who never saw the great man take down swathes of Nazis back in ‘82. Mind you, early fanboy ‘net reviews were so poor it seemed even old-timers were set to turn their back on the action icon.
They shouldn’t. Indy 2008 packs more than enough OTT action, daredevil stunts and old-school humour to sit snugly alongside its forebears. Yes, it’ll likely be considered the fourth best Indiana Jones film – but few series standards have been set so high.
Story, then… the “part-time” professor makes his comeback out of a car boot, having been kidnapped along with old buddy Mac (Ray Winstone) by a pack of Russians led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). The new era is painted beautifully by DoP Janus Kaminszki… It’s the ’50s, baby: ‘Hound Dog’ blasts from car stereos and the US is gripped by Cold War paranoia. The Reds aren’t so much under the beds as waltzing carefree through Nevada, using Jones to unearth a government secret stored in the same warehouse as Raiders’ Ark. Needless to say, Indy won’t go quietly, using whip and wit to dodge the baddies with a sprightliness that belies his near pensionable age…
But enough about the old dog – there’s a new kid on the block(buster): Shia LaBeouf. Playing Mutt (cute name for a new dog), he’s bright and ballsy from the off. A greaser (‘50s, right?), LaBeouf spends half his time picking fights, half combing his hair. If anyone knows how fast pop culture moves it’s Spielberg and casting a young star he raised in teen flicks Disturbia and Transformers shows his audience-savvy smarts. Not heard of Harrison Ford? You’ll know LaBeouf. And in giving the duo near equal screentime, the director further fuels rumours that Crystal Skull will kick-start a Mutt-led franchise.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the film’s most effective action sequence takes place just after their first meeting; the two tearing up the town on Mutt’s Harvey Davidson, chased by the KGB. As Ford’s dragged from bike to car and back to bike and the Commies end up wrapped in a “Better Dead Than Red” banner, Crystal Skull catches fire. Bloggers be damned. This is fantastic Boy’s Own fun.
Sadly the flames flicker rather than roar from then on – the sequence proving the picture’s highlight, the pacing struggling as Shia and Hal head off to Peru to embark on a slow and mumbled bout of tomb raiding… Cranked down, if still charming, the last hour is variations of a theme: Indy and co escape from the Russians. Indy and co are found again. A well-executed jungle cliff chase apart, the third act too often falls flat.
Throw in some ropey CG giant ants straight out of The Mummy, a disappointingly bloodless turn from Blanchett and a sickly sentimental wrap-up and there’s no doubt plenty will rub the shine off the Crystal Skull. But it will still take a tough-skinned fan not to feel goosebumps as the John Williams score builds, indestructible Indy punches his weight and artefacts from this world and beyond start doing weird, wonderful things.
Crucially, this looks and feels like an Indiana Jones film: anyone foretelling Phantom Menace levels of childhood decimation will have to stow their cynicism. It is good to have the ol’ boy back, flying around his paper-map world with a big red line, speaking dialects not heard for centuries and generally just being bloody cool… The kids can keep their Iron Man. He knows nothing about history.
Neither the disaster doom-mongers predicted nor the triumph Spielberg worshippers may claim. New nasties the Russian's don't convey the universal fear of the Nazi's and the plotting is so-so, but Shia sails through the Spielbergian thrills and spills and Ford can still crack the whip.