After nineteen years, countless script rewrites, and so many false starts and stops that it would make any studio executive's head spin, the globe-trotting archaeologist-professor-cum-adventurer finally makes his long-awaited return in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Once again directed by Steven Spielberg (2005's "War of the Worlds
"), this is a worthy, eager-to-please follow-up to 1981's classic "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and 1984's (for me) even more superior "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." For the record, 1989's talky, uninspired "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" isn't nearly on the same level as the other three pictures, which have an old-fashioned, stunt-heavy energy and daring imagination that that last film lacked.
Setting "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" in 1957, screenwriter David Koepp (2005's "Zathura
") naturally acknowledges that Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) isn't as young as he used to be, but nonetheless athletic and able-bodied enough to still have some vigor in his whip-slinging. After an opening set-piece that starts things off with a bangIndy goes head-to-head with icy Soviet scientist Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) in an Area 51 hangar, then manages to narrowly escape a nuclear explosion at an eerie desert testing site designed to look like a suburban neighborhoodthe film catches back up with Mr. Jones at Marshall College, where he teaches part-time. When Indiana's help is sought by a young, motorcycle-riding greaser by the name of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), the two of them head to Peru to find a legendary crystal skull that was allegedly stolen from the mysterious City of Gold. With Irina also in search of itlegend has it that the person who returns it will gain untold powers and knowledgeIndiana and Mutt must fend off her cronies while also saving Indy's kidnapped former teaching colleague, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), and Mutt's mom, ex-flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
The wordily-titled "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" so effortlessly picks back up the look and style of the previous films in the seriesthemselves fond tributes to the cliffhanger-laden adventures of the '30s and '40sthat it instantly feels as if two decades haven't passed since the last entry. With the aid of technological advancements in the intervening years, however, the movie is the most visually accomplished of the four and also has the highest production values. With the exception of some necessary interludes of exposition that slow things down for a spell, the pacing never flags and the action sequences, each one grander and more thrilling than the last, keep coming like ceaseless juggernauts. One extended set-piece involving an auto chase through the jungle and along riverside cliffs is armrest-clenching in its tension, and it is immediately followed by a run-in with deadly red ants and some business with a trio of waterfalls that keep the excitement at a fever pitch.
If there is a quibble to be had, it is that things become a bit more cartoonish than they should, what with Mutt swinging across vines like Tarzan in one scene, and Indy managing to survive a nuclear explosion by closing himself in a refrigerator. In previous films, the characters' mortality was always very much apparent even when faced with extraordinary circumstances. Here, they don't get hurt so much as they simply endure what comes to them and remain relatively unfazed. Then again, the exploits of Indiana Jones have never exactly been a beacon of realism, and so these over-the-top flourishes are fairly easy to swallow. The climax, which brings all of the central players to the City of Gold and face to face with an alien creature right out of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," boasts solid showmanship and satisfyingly wraps things up. The same goes for the epilogue, which will please anyone who has yearned to see the relationship between Indy and Marion play out ever since "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Just like his most famous and iconic character, Harrison Ford (2006's "Firewall
") may not be a spring chicken, but he doesn't let something like age get in the way of getting the job done. Ford is impressively, but not surprisingly, spry for a guy in his mid-sixties, and still has that twinkle for adventure in his eye that has made Indiana Jones so beloved for the last twenty-six years. Karen Allen (2000's "The Perfect Storm
") happily reprises her role as spitfire Marion Ravenwood and she, too, still looks terrific. It was an ingenious idea inviting Allen back to the series; she and Ford have as great of chemistry as always.
As Marion's cocksure son Mutt, Shia LaBeouf (2007's "Transformers
") meshes well with his veteran co-stars and picks up some of the slack for Indy in the fighting scenes, while Cate Blanchett (2006's "Notes on a Scandal
") disappears into her deliciously villainous role as Irina Spalko. Less successful is Ray Winstone (2007's "Beowulf
"), whose side-switching character of 'Mac' George McHale is more a hindrance than an accessory to the story. Because he starts as Indy's sidekick and quickly reveals himself to be a dirty dealer, the viewer questions why Indy continues to allow him to stick around with them.
Few filmmakers are capable of making such fun popcorn movies as Steven Spielberg (Michael Bay tries, but fails, mistaking hyperkinetic editing for narrative momentum), and there is little doubt that "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is the success it is because of him. Spielberg knows how to capture and exploit white-knuckle action on film, but he rarely lets it get in the way of his storytelling. Is this picture the Second Coming, as some rabid fans probably are anticipating? No, it isn't, and it doesn't have to be. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is an entertaining and inventive ride tailor-made for the summer movie season, nothing more. Whether or not this marks the conclusion of the series, it's good enough to do the Indy saga proud.