When you really stop and think about it, it's not like the world needed another Indiana Jones film. Sure, the original films were good--at least the first and third were--but there was never this burning sense that there were more stories to be told. It wasn't even like Star Wars, which had a whole mythology laid out that audiences had eagerly anticipated for decades. No, there was never anything that made more adventures of Indiana Jones a burning cinematic imperative, which is a major part of the reason why the arrival of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, nineteen years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, seems so odd.
Harrison Ford returns to the role he created in 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark. This time around it is 1957, and Indy, much older but no less prone to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, finds himself kidnapped by Russian spies led by the rather nefarious yet one-dimensional Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). It seems that the evil commies are looking for some sort of top-secret somethingorother, and only Indy can help them find this mysterious thing that is hidden somewhere within a vast warehouse in the legendary Area 51. After a prolonged fight/chase sequence that culminates in Indy surviving a nuclear blast (seriously) the film actually begins.
His patriotism questioned for not trying harder to stop the Russian spies--this is, after all, set during the height of the Red Scare--Indy is suspended from his college teaching job. Looking to get away from the political unpleasantness in America, he decides to head to Europe, but before he can go anywhere, he is approached by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a pseudo juvenile delinquent that claims to be friends with Oxley (John Hurt), and old colleague of Indy's, who has gone missing. From there, things get difficult to explain. It seems Oxley was looking for the legendary "crystal skull," and he may have found one, which may lead to an even greater mystery within the lost city of El Dorado, which of course ties into the insidious Russians, who are after Oxley, and his crystal skull. Complicating matters is the fact that somehow Mutt's mother ties into all of this, and she has also gone missing. In fact, she was the one who sent Mutt to find Indiana Jones, the only man capable of making all the wrong things right.
With Indy and Mutt on the run from the Russians, looking for Oxley and the crystal skull, trying to figure out the secrets of the crystal skull, searching for Mutt's mother, and avoiding the other miscellaneous perils that spring up, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turns into a complicated--and at times convoluted--pastiche of chases, fights and incredible stunts, all held together by a story that seems to be more of an excuse to go from one action sequence to another. Riddled with stretches in plausibility that push even the limits of a franchise known for defying plausibility, as well as plot contrivances that are ill-conceived, this is the sort of film that raises more questions than it should, all of which come flooding in about a minute or two after the final credits start to roll. And the more questions the film raises, the more it forces you to scrutinize the movie, and the worse it becomes. Seriously, you won't want to ask more than two questions after watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, because any more than that and the film falls completely apart.
What is interesting about Crystal Skull is that it many ways it is a movie about an old man, made by old men for old men. Unlike the more recent Star Wars films that were catered primarily to children and adult fans without the ability to discern crap, this latest installment of Indiana Jones recognizes that most of its core audience is aging, and the film tries to not dumb it down too much. Of course, that attempt is by and large a failure, thanks no-doubt to George Lucas, who wields his writing pen with all the deft dexterity of a spastic monkey performing a lobotomy with a sledgehammer. Lucas, who has proven that writing is more than a weak point with him, co-wrote the story of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Jeff Nathans, who in turn gave us such "classics" as Speed 2 and Rush Hour 2. Final screenplay credit goes to David Koepp, but all parties need to share the blame for a story that is difficult to follow, and becomes utterly ridiculous, even within the universe of Indiana Jones, where the Ark of the Covenant can melt Nazis and the Holy Grail keeps medieval knights alive for centuries.
Crystal Skull works--when it works--because of director Steven Spielberg's ability to put together action sequences. Few filmmakers are as adept as Spielberg at crafting action set pieces that work as a narrative part of the story, even if the story itself does not always work. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a perfect example of what makes Spielberg the best at what he does; when during a prolonged chase sequence in the Amazon, the film becomes both an exercise in the ridiculous and entertaining. Miraculously, it is great and terrible filmmaking all in one long sequence that simultaneously engages and insults the intelligence of anyone watching with at least one eye open. The sequence--which includes Mutt swinging from trees like Tarzan, an army of killer ants, and an absurd sword fight between Mutt and Irina Spalko--is part and parcel of everything that is right and wrong with the movie, with the result being a piece of in-the-moment diversionary entertainment that should not be watched too critically or seriously.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]