A Jones For Action

This Indiana's 'Crystal Skull' Is Empty -- But Awesome

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

The boy is back in town.

Indiana Jones, the macho-pop whip-flinging archaeologist with the granite fists? Well, yes, him. Or Harrison Ford, 65, still rangy, still cool in a '30s fedora, still believable snapping a lash across a chasm and riding it Tarzan-like from here to there while commies blast away? Yes, that one, too. Or what about Messrs. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, director and writer-producer, who reinvented American cinema in the '70s and '80s by infusing it with a high-octane squirt of energy from dead forms like '30s serials, swashbucklers, sci-fi and monster attacks combined with cutting-edge action and lacerating wit? Yes, they're back, too.

But the boy who's really back is our old friend the hero.

That's the true pleasure of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull": Its stud hasn't a crystal jaw, much less a glass one. Hit him, he gets up and hits you back. He always figures out a way to win. He's the man who won the war (any number of them), a big, smart, tough guy with total belief in himself and his country and his culture. His message to complainers, whiners, doubters, sensitivos is clear: If you ain't a part of the solution, you're part of the problem, bud. He doesn't give a damn about your feelings or even his own.

And the movie celebrates all this, in loving iconic shots of the man, his hat, his whip, in shadowy profile, or as he soars through this or that obstacle course while John Williams's music, so full of the smell of popcorn and butter and Jujubes enameled to the ceilings of old movie palaces, instructs our respiratory systems to get with the program. It's romantic manliness at its purest, almost but not quite schmaltz, ideally calculated to please true believers and ironic snorters at once.

The movie, like its three predecessors, follows Jones on a quest rooted in archaeological voodoo. Its plot is creakier than the door to my basement, simply a series of quest contests between good Yanks and bad Russkies, first for an alien corpse in America, then for a crystal skull in Peru and finally for the home site of the skull, a magic city in Central America. The joinery between the segments is mostly chewing gum, baling wire and spit, and even the crystal skull, said to contain paranormal powers, is bogus. Still, you don't visit a movie like this for ontological truth but for shots of adrenaline with oysters and raw eggs. So the Crystal Skull silliness is an adequate MacGuffin -- i.e., after Hitchcock, a phony story issue that gets the plot moving -- to sustain the movie's real business, which is jungle penetrations, waterfall rides, secret lost cities constructed by M.C. Escher after getting lost in Venice one too many times, reds with guns, swords, tunics, Cossack dancing and a very nice medium-megatonnage A-bomb blast.

In truth, I preferred the first third or so of the movie (who was looking at watches?); that chunk is set in a kind of dream landscape of cusp baby-boomer memory, an America at high noon of the Cold War, in which Soviet commando teams are on the hunt, wild kids on Triumph bikes are rebellin' against whatever you got, red-hunters are too blunt for their own good, and teens in jalopies are looking for ways to get in trouble. The eschatology of the piece seems to be derived from an old agitprop comic book called "Blackhawk" -- "Hawkaaaaa!" was the battle cry -- about a kind of paramilitary crew of multinationals in tunics and jackboots who zipped around the world in their delta-winged jet interceptors fighting red perfidy wherever it showed up. Indy is all seven of them in one. They were always opposed by tunic-wearing commie colonels or red femmes fatales in latex, spandex and lycrex. Both those figures are represented here, the colonel by an actor named Igor Jijikine, whose face seems hacked by imprisoned Kulaks from the steppes, and the ace villainess spy Irina Spalko (yes, that's the great Cate Blanchett with a sword, an AK-47 and vaguely Tartar eyes, leaping from truck to truck in the movie's best gag).

As the movie opens, Spalko's special-operations team has taken over what looks like a proto-Area 51 (the year is 1957) in search of an alien body evidently recovered at Roswell. The commies are looking for paranormal powers in their quest for world dominance. (The central comic device of the movie is to take all '50s paranoia seriously, though the filmmakers did miss water fluoridation.) The reds have kidnapped Indiana Jones to help them find it in the warehouse (it's the same warehouse where the Lost Ark is stored). All this sets up the first big action number, a warehouse escape that gives Spielberg a chance to show off his swing-through-the-air-through-gunfire chops, and Ford to show he's still got what it takes, even beyond meridian 60.

Of course, it doesn't take long before the action has moved to Spielberg's beloved suburbs, a primary-color Your Town, U.S.A., where everything's new and spanking, the houses in rows, the sprinklers sprinkling, the cars all shiny and finny. And the population is all dummies. We know -- those of us who remember that time and place and recall the fate of dummy Your Towns in the Nevada desert -- what happens next. Who knows what secret pleasure Spielberg took in supervising the nuclear destruction of a smug little town like the one he grew up in, but from the skill and care lavished on the detonation and the shingle-by-shingle disintegration of the little boxes, it must have been immense.

It's after this blissful interlude, about an hour in, that the movie actually starts. Spielberg clumsily transitions the action to South America, when Indy receives a message delivered by a bike-mounted Wild One named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) that his old mentor, Dr. Oxley (John Hurt), has been kidnapped. But before we get lost in the jungle, Spielberg fulfills a fantasy to film a movie called "Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler Lays Rubber in a Yale Library."

A secret map -- where would popular culture be without secret maps? -- takes them to Peru, where they discover the Crystal Skull. Without much in the way of sense, the movie then switches to another '30s-'50s pulp tradition, the exotic jungle thing. You know, with the birds all going OOOO-WEEECHIE-CAW-CAW and snakes and ants and tarantulas putting in cameos. It's the most expensive episode of "Ramar of the Jungle" ever filmed.

Their goal is that secret city where Indy aspires to return the Crystal Skull to its appropriate place while Irina and her team mean to deliver it to their KGB masters in exchange for tickets at the front of the Glorious Socialist Five-Year-Plan bread line. Hmmm, again a frail conceit upon which to mount a major movie, but you probably won't notice or care, because it's all really to set up the movie's last 40 minutes, which consists of a hellzapoppin' triple truck chase through the jungle with machine guns at the edge of a cliff. Is it the best Indy sequence? I still favor the fistfight with the German mechanic near the rotating propeller of the Flying Wing while the gasoline truck was about to explode from "Lost Ark," but then I'm old-fashioned. If it's not as good as that, then it's the second-best sequence, as "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is clearly superior to the two previous sequels.

Almost on the template of "Lost Ark," "Crystal Skull" ends with an invocation of awesome power even as it connects with another '50s theme of paranoia, in one of those grandiose special-effects sequences for which Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic shop is so well known. Does it pay off? Maybe not quite, but the movie sends you out as it should -- exhausted and happy -- and you won't begin to think about its flaws for hours.

When you do, you'll wonder what Ray Winstone was doing in the movie as a kind of Brit soldier of fortune, apt to swell a scene or two but not much else. You'll wonder why they didn't get more out of the great Hurt, who just plays cuckoo for a while, while at the other end of the movie, the great Jim Broadbent is wasted in a throwaway as Indy's dean. You probably won't pay much attention to LaBeouf, except to continue to ponder the amazing weirdness of his name. I suppose you'll be pleased to see Karen Allen again, still spunky after all these years. But the real show is the ballroom dance between the two couples, Ford and Blanchett and Spielberg and Lucas. These people seem to know what they are doing.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild violence and scary images.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company