The last time Indiana Jones was in action, he was riding off into the sunset, with a final quest behind him. It took 19 years to coax him back to the screen, but the archeology O.G. is back, and "Kingdom of Crystal Skull" doesn't disappoint in the least. This is the high-flyin', fingernail-chewing, stand-up-and-cheer experience as anticipated, yet it's not exactly the same Dr. Jones as you might remember.
The year is 1957, and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has settled into a life alone, mourning the loss of his father, Henry Sr., and colleague Marcus Brody. Rustling him out of his routine are vicious Russian soldiers, led by psychic Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, a sublime heavy), who want Indy to uncover the location of a mysterious crystal skull, using clues left behind by his old friend, Oxley (John Hurt). Helping Indy out is Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a tough young greaser who needs Indy to save his mother, Marion (Karen Allen). Traveling to South America to find the lost Temple of Akator, Indy fights to slip out of Spalko's tight grip while trying to uncover the skull's purpose before the Russians can claim their ultimate, world-dominating prize.
The familiar fingerprints of Indiana Jones are smudged all over "Kingdom:" director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas even dust off the old Paramount Pictures logo to help match the mood that was left hanging in 1989. It's a commendable effort, keeping the audience comfy with what they're seeing in 2008, but it's a little misleading. "Kingdom" is an old-fashioned, no-frills Indy adventure, but it also shakes up the franchise wherever it can. No matter what the Beards tell the press, "Kingdom" is Indy 2.0, but in a very rewarding way. It steps forward, not back, approaching the character's epic life from a fresh perspective.
It's a new world for Indiana Jones, who comes to "Kingdom" after his war-hero days in WWII, still feeling the sting of loved ones who have passed on. He's older, wiser, and fully entrenched in his stuffy professorial ways; committed to education now more than ever, but still able and willing to throw a punch when needed. Of course, Ford plays the aging symphony like a maestro, never pushing too hard on the bitter old man routine, instead nicely sinking into Indy's ripened ways. Sure, the screenplay by David Koepp likes to poke fun at Indy's years with some clever gags, but Spielberg seems more enchanted with the character's maturation into a team player, not using the age for a cheap punchline.
In reality, the post-war mood is a delightful way to refresh Indy iconography, taking the audience into a darker world where targeting absolute evil is a more complicated process and American might is being swallowed by communist paranoia. The original films (1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," 1984's "Temple of Doom," and 1989's "The Last Crusade") all played into the gleeful 1930's Saturday-matinee-serial mentality, marked by pristine colors (courtesy of ace cinematographer Douglas Slocombe), heavy production detail, and sparkling outdoorsy escapades. The Cold War environment of "Kingdom" is more claustrophobic and agitated; Spielberg and his shooter Janusz Kaminski replicate the massively layered compositions of the earlier installments, but ease in a new clouded color palette and enclosed sensation through the substantial usage of sets.
That's not to say the film is dreary; it's anything but that, yet subtle changes are felt throughout the picture, emphasizing the polished technology Spielberg is working with now, not to mention his own growth behind the camera, after years of trying to strip away his "Mr. Blockbuster" reputation. "Kingdom" snuggles into the Indy goods easily, but it's best to acknowledge that "Kingdom" is somewhat aesthetically different than the previous adventures, and that's an outstanding achievement.
While Spielberg is wrestling with vast sound stage spaces and easing into a CGI-led cinematic world, "Kingdom" doesn't hesitate to reawaken the breakneck velocity the franchise is known for. The film opens with a literal bang, as Indy battles Spalko around the infinite warehouse location glimpsed at the end of "Raiders," swinging around the joint with his trusty bullwhip and barely dodging Russian bullets. Right from the starter pistol, Ford reclaims the character's bruiser physicality and Spielberg dusts off his old crack timing, bestowing audiences with a skillful opening reel that feels just like a visit from an old friend; at the same time, Spielberg updates the proceedings with a handsome 1950's mood, using the sounds of Elvis and haunting atomic bomb testing ground locations to get viewers up to speed with the new era.
It's chase scenes galore from there, including a crackerjack motorcycle ride through Indy's college campus with Mutt (hunted by Russian agents) and the film's centerpiece: a gymnastic jungle chase sequence that mirrors the classic marathon desert brawl of "Raiders." Here, the CG glaze is most readily apparent, but it never bothered me. With Spielberg staging the action in sweeping, dazzling widescreen movements (seemingly allergic to heavy editing), I'll take the Lucas-mandated artificiality with a degree of patience. They don't make movies quite like they used to in the '80s, but "Kingdom" shimmies awfully close to the mall-multiplex ecstasy of observing characters leaping around the frame with abandon, pummeling each other while the John Williams score blasts away triumphantly. When "Kingdom" rears back and delivers the goods, the result will reduce the average Indy fan to pudding.
Surprisingly, the titular MacGuffin is far more critical to the story than previous installments have dictated. There's no fortune and glory lust about the crystal skull for Indy, and he takes possession of the spooky magnetized item early on in the film, leaving the rest of the action in protection mode rather than retrieval. To keep within the '50's vibe, there are sci-fi overtones to the story, using the 1947 events in Roswell and the skull's football-like shape to introduce otherworldly mystery to "Kingdom" in place of religious or supernatural focal points. The whole film is a good-natured homage to this era of filmmaking, with giant ant rampages, Soviet domination, and Mutt in full Brando, "Wild One" mode as a switchblade-carrying, leather-jacket-wearing, Harley-riding delinquent.
Keeping that mindset of '50's sci-fi will help to digest the conclusion of "Kingdom," where Lucas's fingers can be felt again in the film's second generous helping of CG embellishment.
Even if today's filmmaking technology creeps up in "Kingdom," the heart belongs to Ford. It's a blissful performance that mixes Indy's punch-drunk bewilderment with haggard acknowledgement of limitation, showing age not through fatigue but through a welcomed sense of family and educational responsibility. Ford plays the brief tributes to Sean Connery and Denholm Elliot with marvelous grace and dives into all the bloodied beatings, but the real energy of "Kingdom" comes from his encounters with LaBeouf and Allen, which crackle with traditional Indy magic and bring the absolute best out of the actor.
Spielberg deserves a medal the way he suppresses LaBeouf's annoying performance habits, turning the young star into a credible greaser and an unexpectedly vulnerable sidekick. LaBeouf is a revelation here and doesn't stick out in the Indiana Jones world as much as expected. He supports Ford wonderfully, but once Allen shows up at the midway point, some old "Raiders" chemistry is rekindled to steal the movie away. Marion and Indy don't receive the luxurious screen time they deserve in "Kingdom," but the actors make the most of it, creating needed romantic sparks at the center of all the mayhem, lovingly comedic with their reunion and the unexpected revelations that come with it. It's just a delight to see Ford and Allen back in character.
The challenge of "Kingdom" to match the previous Indy DVDs is monumental, what with the last box set achieving wondrous picture quality rare for the format. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio), "Kingdom" isn't nearly as bright and blue-sky as what has come before, but the image is thoroughly detailed, with wonderful color reproduction and clarity within the soft-focus photography. Black levels hold firmly, while fleshtones retain their natural (though romantically heightened) hues. Again, "Kingdom" was shot with different priorities than early Indy, but the DVD matches the other presentations with outstanding visual pop.
Of course "Kingdom" excels in the sound department as well. The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix careens pleasurably across the room, offering impressive directional effects during moments of mayhem. Dialogue and score selections are separately wonderfully, with the music warmly reflected in the mix, not cold and distant. The track is a robust, boom-happy sound offering that engages the listener with depth and energy befitting an Indiana Jones adventure. It demands to be played at top volume. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are offered as well.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
As we all know by now, Senor Spielbergo doesn't do audio commentaries. The man adores documentaries, and the "Kingdom" DVD is jam-packed with behind-the-scenes specifics, shining a blinding light on the substantial production achievements of this sequel. Unlike the other pictures, there's a wealth of location footage to work with, and this widespread roster of highlights is what DVD supplements are all about.
"The Return of a Legend" (17:37) traces Indiana Jones's journey back to the big screen, interviewing Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford on the development process than began in 1994. It was a long, winding road for the trio, with plenty of scripting setbacks during the 1990s, and a general reluctance from Spielberg to reopen the series after his poetic final shot in "Last Crusade." It's a bit of a whitewashed recollection (the recent Frank Darabont contribution is not mentioned), but the enthusiasm is palpable.
"Pre-Production" (11:47) observes the preparation for "Kingdom," taking a look at Spielberg and his pre-visualization demands, watching Ford ease back into character, and chatting with Bernie Pollack, Ford's personal costume man, who had the unenviable task of finding an armada of new fedoras and jackets that could withstand a beating during the shoot. The casting of Shia LeBeouf and the reintroduction of Karen Allen as Marion is also discussed.
Now, a little malarkey is thrown around in this featurette when cinematographer Janusz Kaminski arrives to discuss how Spielberg made sure "Kingdom" visually matched the previous films. I'll buy that for framing arguments, but for sharpness and adventuresome coloring? No way.
"Production Diary: Making 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'" (80:11) is a sprawling, comprehensive recount of filming, emerging from obvious promotional purposes (the actors are interviewed on the set), yet still captures the spirit of production and the monumental steps it took to bring Indiana Jones back to theaters (and now DVD).
Locations, sets, stunts, performances, silliness, direction, bugs, weather, special effects, snakes, hairdos, backlots, molds, costumes, ant juice, and marital hugs and kisses. It's all covered here, and with tremendous BTS footage to back up the effusive comments. A real treat for "Kingdom" fans.
"Warrior Makeup" (5:37) reveals the effort it took to turn average stuntmen into unholy temple guardians, interviewing department head Felicity Bowring and hair department honcho Kelvin R. Trahan about their accomplishments.
"The Crystal Skulls" (10:13) explores the myth of the titular object of power, with cast and crew lending their thoughts on the authenticity of the skulls. The conversation soon moves to the meticulous creation of the props, which needed to convey special weight and spooky, otherworldly architecture.
"Iconic Props" (10:04) meets with prop master Doug Harlocker and tours the warehouse where all the "Kingdom" goodies and inside jokes are kept during filming.
"The Effects of Indy" (22:44) begins with ILM digital artist Paul Huston discussing his history with the franchise, and its move from practical effects to the digital realm. The featurette observes the CG details of the frame, and how the "Kingdom" team often married live-action filming with digital enhancements. Miniature photography on the Doom Town sequence, Jungle Chase choreography, and adventures with the "big damn ants" are also covered in full.
"Adventures in Post-Production" (12:47) flips the coin to consider the extensive finishing moves on the "Kingdom" experience, interviewing editor Michael Kahn and sound designer Ben Burtt (and his son Benny Burtt) as they assemble the picture for release. The creation of the traditional Burtt sounds is mesmerizing to watch. Finally, John Williams shows up to elucidate his creative decisions during the scoring of the film. Hopefully this section of the supplements will finally silence the unfair criticism leveled at Williams and his superb musical work.
"Closing: Team Indy" (3:45) is essentially a high school yearbook of the key names and faces who worked on the film.
"Pre-Visualization Sequences" (14:10) shows the viewer "Area 51 Escape," "Jungle Chase," and "Ants Attack" in their earliest stages of development.
The "Galleries" section includes "The Art Department," "Stan Winston Studio," "Production Photographs," "Portraits," and "Behind-the-Scenes Photographs."
The Theatrical Teaser and final Trailer for "Kingdom" are included on this DVD, along with a look at the "Indiana Jones: Ultimate Action Hero" DVD commercial.
Finally, an XBOX 360 demo for the outrageously entertaining "Lego Indiana Jones" video game is included.
"Kingdom" satisfies in a massive way, handing the faithful towering servings of action and archeological surprise, while inching the series into new artistic and visual directions that could conceivably open the door to further, and wholeheartedly welcome, adventures. There's still plenty of fire in Indy's belly to explore. It took nearly two decades to get the character back on the screen, but it was worth the wait: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is an exquisitely crafted, lightning-paced thrill ride; a barnstorming blockbuster effort from Steven Spielberg, and a return to iconic action hero fortunes for Harrison Ford.
(screenshots do not reflect final DVD product)
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