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 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 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. The film should offer a new pair of pants with every ticket.
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.
"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. It's an absolute treat for fans of all ages.