Hey, aren't you han solo?The unabashedly campy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes us on yet another retro, whirlwind adventure, this time led by an older, slightly mellowed, but still dashing "Indy." The latest installment of the four Indiana Jones films taps into '50s nostalgia-beginning in a malt shop in Cambridge, Mass. - and winds up in the Amazonian Jungle of Peru. Once again, we get to tag along with our favorite rogue archeologist, while in this episode he fends off several near-fatal attacks by Russian KGB operatives turned treasure hunters, and an onslaught of computer generated ants.
The plots of the Indiana Jones movies are always somewhat ridiculous; but who cares when in a span of under three hours the audience gets to trek to Nepal and Cairo, Shanghai and India, Venice, or the Amazon Jungle, all in the name of discovering treasure (which always bears some supernatural power), while preventing evil-doers from getting there first? The Crystal Skull, possibly the most schmaltzy of the bunch, is no exception.
The appearance of Indy's iconic fedora in the form of a shadow, accompanied by the opening strains of the series' familiar score, is a signal that the real action is about to unfold; and, playing on audience anticipation, it's director Steven Spielberg's witty reminder of why we're all here. Harrison Ford, at 65, somehow manages to retain his bad-boy charm. And even though his actions seem a little more measured now, he's still in pretty damn good shape. Ford deadpans deliciously in this film: as Jones, he quips about his age, his past escapades, and his present predicaments. As always, his facial expression careens back and forth between his trademark rakish grin, and that familiar look of worry brewing like a storm in his furrowed brow.
The young Mutt Williams (Shia Labeouf) blasts onto the scene as a greaser riding a motorcycle. He finds Jones at the charmingly Ivy League-ish Marshall College (filmed on location at Yale University) and tries to persuade him to go to Peru. The mission is two-fold: hunting for a mystical crystal skull that has fallen into the clutches of the corrupt Russians, and rescuing Mutt's mother from the villains. The scrappy Mutt pulls out a letter from his mother, a former flame of Indy's, along with a mysteriously compelling map, which together prove irresistible to Jones. As the story unfurls like a map, the two embark on a journey to Peru.
Karen Allen returns as the refreshing Marion Ravenwood, the slightly ditzy babe who's the only woman who could ever really keep up with Indy; in an amusing exchange, we learn that she's also the only one that ever stole his heart. Ray Winstone plays Jones' wartime buddy, "Mac," an otherwise likeable fellow who succumbs to greed. John Hurt portrays Harold Oxley, a former colleague, who seems to be one hay bale short of a stack due to his exposure to the infamous skull. Hurt's formidable talent is lost on his role, though. Cate Blanchette camps it up as the Russian agent, Irina Spalko. Her character doesn't seethe with as much evil as it probably should to make us quiver with dread, but she's fun to watch in this role anyway, and somehow you can tell she's enjoying the romp too.
If anything, I think the special effects are the least engaging part of the film. Besides, the snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were much creepier than the ants in this episode. But the film seems at times to be laughing at itself, winning the audience over into laughing as well. Bring on the bullwhip and enjoy another bumpy ride.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ★★★✩
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Shia Labeouf and Cate Blanchette. Directed by Stephen Spielberg. Rated PG-13.