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May 19, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Atomic Indiana
Spielberg and Company Revive Indiana Jones
By Cole Smithey

6a00e5523026f5883400e55253107b88348 From the daan-dadaduun-tuun-duun opening notes of its famous John Williams musical score, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" announces itself as a matinee serial cliffhanger-inspired sequel that's built like a brick smokehouse where audiences will be spoon-fed with infectious exuberance. An amalgamation of "American Graffiti," "Star Wars," "E.T." "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and nearly every successful adventure movie franchise of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, the movie is dotted with immediately recognizable nostalgic elements that play to the kid in everyone. Teens drag race their convertible roadster with U.S. Army personnel on a Nevada rural route, circa 1957, before we discover that the military officers and soldiers are actually a team of wily Cold War Russians taking Jones and his intermittently double-crossing sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) to the Government's notoriously secret Hangar 51 to find the contents of a certain crate. Cate Blanchett channels Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, as a black-bob-haired Ukrainian commandant named Irina Spalko who chews her vowels like licorice-coated borscht. With a smirk and his whip, Indy turns the giant hangar into a carnival of set piece action before escaping the enclosure to its dubious outer limits. The mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb test explosion tests Indy's survival skills inside a mannequin-populated suburban housing mock-up, and sets up the cartoon action sequences that escalate exponentially.

Back in the relatively safe confines of the college he teaches, Jones is fired as a result of an FBI investigation into his loyalty to homeland America. It's not just the Cold War that's breathing down Indy's neck, but McCarthyism to boot. A malt shop meeting with a "Wild One" era Brando-inspired motorcycle "greaser" named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), convinces Indy that a trip to the jungles of Peru to look for an archeological object of desire, the Crystal Skull of Akator, is in order. Once there, the newly-bonded duo of Indy and Mutt rescue one very insane Professor Oxley (well played in a squandered supporting role by John Hurt) and obtain the Crystal Skull, which resembles an elongated cranium of the creature from the "Alien" movies. Irina and her troops catch scent of the skull that the too desire and offer hot pursuit that fuels a long-running series of eye-popping slapstick chase sequences involving giant ants, a hoard of monkeys, and the dramatic use of one very long snake for rescuing a certain snake-hating hero.

With Oxley and the Crystal Skull in tow, our daring trio become four when Mutt's mother Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen from "Raiders of the Lost Ark") is delivered into the story like a romantic reward for Jones, for whom it's clear she is the only woman. Any film school professor will tell you that the easiest way to entertain a film audience is to create a chase scene-they exist in one form or another in almost every movie, regardless of genre. Spielberg's mastery of the chase form layers elements of small and grand scale spectacle in an orchestrated way so that every uptick in speed and obstacle is matched with humor and foreshadowing of things to come. The slaps and tickles arrive with undeniably entertaining sword fights and jumping or falling stunts that delight in a magical way that adventure cinema should. The filmmaking on display here is so far ahead of quest movies like "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" that it's embarrassing to even mention them in the same breath. The Indiana Jones ensemble of actors, crew, special effects teams, designers and the rest, understand Spielberg's way of reaching into iconic physical elements like a city of gold, or a series of gigantic waterfalls for example, to extract cinematic joy deeply rooted in childish dreams and fantasy.

David Koepp's script may not be a perfect example of balanced exposition and dramaturgy, but it doesn't matter because the message is clear. We love to be taken with our surrogate family of heroes on pretend adventures to unbelievably beautiful and dangerous places where anything is possible, and where the surprises are beyond our wildest imaginations. We always want to go back. This is a movie you will want to revisit again and again.

Rated PG-13. 122 mins. (A) (Five Stars)


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