Okay, let's get this first question out of the way-
No, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is NOT as entertaining as "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In fact, it's not even close.
"Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" could be the weakest of the fourth Indiana Jones films, in fact it is, and it could still be a darn fine film...in fact, it is.
In fact, I was getting quite nervous early in the film. It was obvious, quite obvious, that "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was a Steven Spielberg/George Lucas partnership. How you say?
How about the early scenes reminiscent of "American Graffiti?"
No, wait. Maybe it was the eerily similar to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" scenes later in the film.
Maybe it was the "Always" like flying scenes?
Heck, I could probably even stretch in a comparison to "Duel" fairly easily.
Okay, that last one's a real stretch.
The truth is that Spielberg is one of my favorite directors precisely because he's a massive risk-taker who is unafraid to tackle virtually any genre or sub-genre of film...while he's arguably better at some than others, in virtually every way he's one of America's consummate directors. So, while it may be a bit distracting to periodically think of other films while watching "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," it's pretty amazing that EVERY film I thought of brought a smile to my face.
Back to "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."
Have I mentioned that it's a darn fine film?
Unlike the previous three Indiana Jones films, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" did not enthrall me. It did entertain me, but I can't deny that towards the end I found myself checking the time and, on more than one occasion, I found myself muttering under my breath about the cheesy special effects, especially those involving flying and a godawful map of the world.
I couldn't help but notice that Harrison Ford, back for his fourth round as Indy, LOOKED old and sure didn't look capable of doing half the stunts in the film.
Karen Allen, back as his love interest from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," was even less convincing in the action scenes. However, her chemistry with Ford remains so delightfully full of spark that the mildly unconvincing action stunts were quite forgivable.
Admittedly, the "Indiana Jones" series has never had believability as its hallmark trait. Still, in "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" it's almost as if the decision was made to acknowledge the aging process without ever fully integrating it into the story. Sure, Indy makes jokes about his age but it stops there. We hear Indy remark about being a step slower, but the action scenes would lead you to believe otherwise...until, of course, you actually look at the scene and see the 65-year-old Harrison Ford trying to do the scenes.
Admirable? Sure, it's absolutely wonderful that he can remain an exciting, intriguing and entertaining Indiana Jones after all these years. It's just not always completely convincing.
I realize I'm sounding rather negative about "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," so I guess I should stress that despite the reminders of previous Spielberg/Lucas films and the obvious aging of its stars, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is an action-filled, entertaining and often quite funny film that far surpasses most of the sequels that hit the market.
This film is set in the 1950's at the height of the Red Scare in America and, for sure, the Russkies are ever present in the film and on American soil led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Russian army officer said to be an expert in the psychic sciences. As one would expect, Blanchett nails the Russian accent but isn't called upon to do much more than staring, sword fighting and getting one-upped.
Of course, this wouldn't be an Indiana Jones film if Indy didn't end up off on an adventure...this one involves returning a crystal skull to its rightful resting place, an act said to empower the person who returns it with all that civilization's power.
In all honesty, the story isn't nearly as tightly written as the previous Indiana Jones films and it's practically secondary to the action sequences, the musical score, watching Indy again and the camaraderie of Indy and his supporting characters.
This time around, his primary sidekick is Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who drags Indy into the entire affair as a way to rescue his mother (the aforementioned Karen Allen) and a scientist who seems to have gone a bit nutty as a result of his encounter with the crystal skull (John Hurt).
It feels a tad mean to point out Karen Allen's deficiencies in her action scenes, because she literally lights up the screen in her scenes with Ford and here mere presence here elevates "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" above mediocrity. While I wish Spielberg had focused less on action and more on character dynamics, it's a testimony to Allen's acting that she rises above the physically demanding role.
LaBeouf, as well, proves to be a worthy companion to Ford and, in a scene near the very end of the film, gives a possible hint of things to come cinematically. While LaBeouf lacks Ford's ability to project vulnerability onscreen, he does blend in a nice humanity in his scenes and his banter with Ford perfectly fit the arc of the series.
Of course, none of this would matter if Harrison Ford were not up to the task of recreating Indy for a fourth time. While he may look different and the action scenes may lack the crisp spark of the previous films, Ford clearly relishes the opportunity to tackle such a meaty, energetic role at a time when most senior actors are being relegated to roles as parents, grandparents and other elder statesmen.
Ray Winstone is solid as Indy's sometimes friend, sometimes nemesis Mac, while John Hurt is spot-on as the scientist who starts out mad and slowly comes back to life. Jim Broadbent also does nicely in a fairly brief book-end appearance as the Dean of the college where Indy is a professor.
There are, of course, certain trademarks that neither Spielberg nor Lucas dare mess with including the ever present musical score, the fedora and the overall production design of the film, though the person who designed poor Karen Allen's costume should be traded to the Russkies. The actual production design of the crystal skull, as well, lacked the power and pizzazz usually associated with an Indiana Jones mission. It looked, for lack of a better term, cheap.
By the way, I simply must give kudos to what is easily the year's most stellar cinematography from Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski, a frequent Spielberg collaborator. I frequently find myself lamenting the frequent little cracks and blips that seem to inevitably find themselves in a film's final print for the big screen. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?" Pristine is the only world to use.
So, there you have it.
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is not a perfect film. It is not up to par with its Indiana Jones predecessors. Comparing it to its predecessors is likely to leave you disappointed, however, allowing it to stand on its own and just admiring the finished product will likely leave you being enormously entertained.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic