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‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1989


Steven Spielberg
Harrison Ford;
Sean Connery;
Denholm Elliott;
John Rhys-Davies;
River Phoenix
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Of all the directors working in the movies today, Steven Spielberg has the truest instincts for keeping an audience visually engaged, plugged in. This is his great gift -- to put us inside his movies -- and at his best, his natural command of the simple mechanics of storytelling, of editing and camera movements and pacing, enables him to evoke a kind of pop transcendence that comes close to the effect of the higher, classical arts. The greatest of his films are pure, pop epiphanies, exhilarating, innocent and uniquely, indelibly his own.

Somehow, though, they are your own, too, and the great disappointment of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the largely irrelevant third and (supposedly) final installment in the hair-raising adventures of the superarcheologist, is that it seems to be neither yours nor his.

In pictures like "Sugarland Express" and "Jaws" and "E.T.," Spielberg told his stories explosively, as if they were nearly bursting out of him. Those movies -- and the earlier Indy films as well -- were essays in velocity and propulsiveness. "The Last Crusade" is the first of Spielberg's films to make us feel heavy in our seats, the first to leave us sitting, passive and uninvolved, on the outside. Watching it, you feel that nearly anyone could have directed it.

In fact, the material here isn't significantly worse than in the previous installments. But the absence of Spielberg's transforming touch lays bare what in the earlier films remained somewhat hidden. Stuffed with routine thrills, "The Last Crusade" is nearly all chases and dull exposition. Whereas the previous two Indy films began with a cracking bang, this one begins with a thud.

It commences in Utah in 1912, with a young Indiana Jones, played by River Phoenix, attempting to filch a jewel-encrusted cross from a band of archeologists. During the ensuing chase across the roof of a circus train, the mop-topped Boy Scout reveals the origins of such bits of Indy lore as his hat, his bullwhip and his famous aversion to snakes. (It even shows us how he got that tiny scar across his chin.) But jammed all together, without emphasis or drama, they seem reduced in significance -- frankly, with their magical aura broken, they seem cheesy.

After these bland elaborations on the Indiana mythology, the movie settles down to the telling of its central story, which involves the search for the Holy Grail, a treasured relic that Indiana's father, the eminent archeologist Dr. Henry Jones (Sean Connery), has searched for all his life. Others, it seems, are interested in the prize as well, including the Nazis, who abduct the scholarly doctor and hold him captive in a castle in the Austrian mountains. Indy's search, therefore, is for his father, not the Grail (though in the movie's eyes they're pretty much equal).

Before he sets out, though, the characters gab at each other for what seems like an eternity, elucidating Grail ephemera. I've been saddened, appalled and infuriated by other Spielberg films, but never bored, yet there are long patches in "The Last Crusade" -- even in the midst of feverish action -- when I simply checked out. Spielberg's talent for swift and hyperbolic storytelling seems to have deserted him here. Rather than make the frame come alive with information and evocative detail, he seems content with standard setups and solutions. Watching these exposition scenes, you feel as if Spielberg were intentionally trying to find a more conventional way of putting his narrative across. It's as if he were trying for mere plodding competence.

It's not just in the exposition scenes that the picture goes slack. Aside from the majestic opening vistas (a homage to David Lean?) and a brief sequence in Berlin showing a Nazi book burning, the film is completely lacking in visual grandeur. Since the series is famous for its hairbreadth escapes and high-pitched brawls, the filmmakers have supplied a boat chase, a motorcycle chase and an airplane chase. There is also an escape from a ancient, rat-infested crypt, an escape from a castle and an escape from a Nazi dirigible. With the exception of a climactic tank battle, which piles thrill upon thrill until it seems nearly unbearable, the big action set pieces don't accumulate any momentum. Mostly, they're flat and uninvolving.

The rapport between Harrison Ford, as Indy, and Connery is the movie's choicest feature, and in places it acquires a special burnish -- at times, it's almost moving. Clearly, with this relationship the filmmakers are attempting both to deepen the series and to redeem it (in their minds) from the ignominy of the darker, much-criticized second film. In fact, the relationship provides the film with at least something to discover, some reason for being. Spielberg has said that his motive for casting Connery was to give Ford an actor of equal weight to play against, and though Ford hardly provides any revelations, the stars do match up nicely. They're solid up there, those two; spiritually, they could be father and son, and the rough masculinity that both actors project helps lend some significance to the characters.

The relationship, though, is conceived wholly in father-son cliche's. Dressed in his thick Victorian tweeds, Dr. Jones is the stern, work-obsessed taskmaster who, at least from the boy's point of view, seems completely indifferent to his son's existence. Unable to get his attention, Indy began his travels and his farfetched adventures. This sets up the film's fundamental banality -- that, in reality, Indy has been engaged in a search for the father, or his father's approval, his whole life. This is tolerable at least when it is expressed in comic terms, as, say, when Indy unseats a Nazi from his motorbike and, turning to his father for acknowledgment, finds him casually winding his watch instead. But when, straightfaced, the filmmakers ask us to accept the banality behind the banality -- that Dr. Jones wants to love his son but doesn't know how -- you feel a groan welling up deep within you.

In one respect, Spielberg and his producing partner, George Lucas, have carried their series deeper -- deeper into the hooey. The final section, in which Indy must claim the Grail and save his father's life, is imbued with a turgid, pop-mystical tone. (It doesn't help that these scenes look as if they were lit with a Lava Lamp.) The sense of momentousness and wonder they strain for doesn't come across, though. And not only is there a shortage of magic, there's a shortage of sense as well.

Even with all the essential ingredients in place, the picture seems dispirited, perfunctory. Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies reprise their roles as Marcus and Sallah, with Elliott looking as if he can't wait to curl up under the nearest shade tree. And Alison Doody does mannequinlike service in her movie debut as Indy's female partner and adversary. Even with Connery and Ford, though, Spielberg is the star, and his disengagement is the determining force. The director has been quoted as saying that there were only two reasons for him to make a third Indiana Jones picture and one of them was to fulfill a commitment to his friend Lucas (the other was to atone for the perceived sins of their second installment). As a result, the film seems swamped with the spirit of obligation. Like James Bond and Superman, Indiana Jones is a superhero, ageless, invulnerable, immortal. But if "Empire of the Sun" is any indication, Spielberg has grown beyond superheroes. He made his famous handshake deal with Lucas more than 10 years ago, when he was still a boy wonder himself. And by now, his heart just isn't in it.

"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" is rated PG-13 and contains some violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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