While I had relatively low expectations for this fourth installment of the revered Indiana Jones franchise, I always held out a small inkling of hope that it would, if not surpass the previous films, at least come close to the high bar set by Spielberg, Lucas and Ford over the past 27 years. And, I find myself pleased to announce, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, despite having one of the worst titles ever, is an incredibly fun, enjoyable film, a rip-roaring adventure that neither denigrates nor elevates the legacy of the earlier movies, but rather insinuates itself snugly into the famed archeologist's legend.
Mild spoilers may follow, but probably nothing you haven't heard/couldn't figure out for yourself.
Set more than twenty years after we watched Indiana Jones and his father ride off into the sunset, Crystal Skull finds Dr. Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) embroiled in a bit of Cold War intrigue, complete with international globe trotting (as opposed to, say, domestic globe trotting, which I imagine would take one to much less exotic locales), Communist paranoia, double crosses and psychic KGB agents. Indy's first foray into the atomic age is certainly ushered in with a bang (literally - you'll see).
To say that Indiana Jones films are formulaic would be an understatement, but that certainly hasn't detracted from their fun, and Crystal Skull is no exception. Instead of Nazis, bent on world domination, chasing after the lost ark and the holy grail, this time it's Stalin's Soviet Russia and an ancient, mystical (aren't they all?) artifact, a crystal skull said to possess the ability to read the minds of men, and to control them. Soviet psychic Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) thinks the United States government, Indiana Jones, specifically, has knowledge as to the whereabouts of the titular skull, and she, like Indy's previous foils, will stop at nothing to get what she wants. (And, as in the earlier films, "get it" she does, only "it" is not exactly what she expects.)
Indy, who, during World War II, was a spy for the Allies and earned the rank of colonel, is joined by his British treasure-hunting cohort, MI6 agent George "Mac" McHale (Ray Winstone), a young man named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf, who must have named himself after the dog, too; guess it runs in the family) who has a penchant for motorcycles and leather jackets, and Mutt's mother, the funny and beautiful Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who, with a twinkle in her eye and a devilish grin, is a sight for sore eyes, both for Indy and the audience. She and Indy quickly fall back into old habits, firing witty wisecracks back and forth while busting Na-, I mean, Commie heads. It's almost hard to believe 27 years have passed since Marion's Tibetan bar went up in flames, the way Harrison Ford and Karen Allen slipped right back into character without missing a beat
There are winks and nods galore to Indy's past adventures, from photographs of his father and Marcus Brody atop Indy's desk to a certain Hebrew relic collecting dust in an Area-51 warehouse to this look, this great, wonderful look Indy gives to Mutt after the two of them escape the clutches of the KGB. It's the exact same withering look Henry Jones Sr. gives his son after they escape on motorcycle from the Nazis in Austria, before they go to Berlin to retrieve the grail diary.
I can certainly see Shia LaBeouf slip into the worn leather jacket and fedora in a fifth film, as Spielberg recently intimated at Cannes. He and Ford share a great chemistry. You can almost see the admiration in the young man's eyes as he realizes he's making an Indiana Jones movie with Harrison Ford and Steve Spielberg. I cannot imagine the fun they must have had making this movie.
Along with my disdain for the title, I'm also not keen on the extraterrestrial turn the story takes, but I imagine that's more of an issue of taste than of good or bad storytelling. After all, if the wrath of God can melt Nazis in the first and third films, are little green men, so to speak, really that big of a leap? I'm just glad they didn't look like E.T.
But, despite Crystal Skull's otherworldly nature, I really did find myself having a great time. I felt like I was seeing old friends I thought I'd long ago left behind. I don't think I could have asked for anything more.