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Friday, June 20, 2008

'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'

Give me 'Mummy' over this 'Indy'


Every now and then I'll hear a rant from some friend who just doesn't get dance music. "It's the same doof-doof-doof kick-drum over and over," they'll say — and they're right. But above, behind, around the kick-drum is where the variation is happening. You won't hear it if you can't get past the kick, though.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Rating: (2 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Shia LaBeouf as Mutt © DAVID JAMES. TM & LUCASFILM LTD.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 21, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Maybe that's where I'm at these days when it comes to Hollywood summer spectacle movies. I saw "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" the other day, and really, was it ever doof-doof-doof. The use of digital FX, the chase scenes, the three-act narrative — all as predictable as any massive kick-drum.

Indeed, the new "Indiana Jones" movie hews so precisely to the pattern established by the previous three, it would be a mistake to call this a "new movie" by Steven Spielberg. A "remix" is more like it; or maybe a "branded media property." Just don't call it "fresh."

So what happened? A long time ago, in a decade far, far away, I once liked the "Indiana Jones" movies. This new one forced me to confront a question: Is the problem that, 27 years on from the start of the series, I've changed? Or is it that they haven't?

If I were feeling charitable, I'd say naturally it's a bit of both . . . but "The Crystal Skull" didn't leave me in a very charitable mood. Sure, when "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" came out in 1981, I'd seen nothing like it. But in the decades since then there have been a zillion films like this, and "The Crystal Skull" offers little to make it stand out from the pack — except, of course, the brand.

The unspeakable truth is that Brendan Fraser and "The Mummy" series, oft regarded as shamelessly aping the "Indiana Jones" flicks, actually does a much better job of it. Fraser is a great deadpan comic actor, and the screenwriters behind "The Mummy" give him some good lines to work with amid the blizzard of SFX.

The same sure can't be said of the screenwriters behind "The Crystal Skull," which includes George Lucas. Their sense of humor deserves to be locked in a casket and interred in some lost jungle temple where it won't be unearthed for another 1,000 years. I mean, try this on for size: The year is 1957, and some Russian soldiers have infiltrated a secret U.S. Army base, where they have our hero, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), at gunpoint. Russian superspy Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) asks him, "Any last words, Dr. Jones?" To which our hero replies: "I like Ike."

That's a one-liner? Please. As Harrison Ford once famously said on the set of "Star Wars" to its director, Mr. Lucas: "George, you can type this sh*t, but you sure can't say it."

Presumably, Ford's patience has increased over the years with the amount of his paychecks. Lucas, for his part, will always have a tin ear. By mid-point the film gets so short on action and long on incomprehensible talk about El Dorado, geo-glyphs and interdimensional beings that you'll feel like you're watching Indiana Jones on the crystal meth.

It gets worse when Shia LaBeouf shows up — every generation gets the Keanu Reeves it deserves — as a greaser/biker named Mutt. With his leather jacket, switchblade, accent and obsession with combing his quiff, it becomes clear Mutt was lifted whole from Henry Winkler's character Fonzie in "Happy Days." So Lucas, who actually grew up in the 1950s, is reduced to stealing cliches from the T.V. show that ripped off his own movie "American Graffiti." Now that's weak.

Spielberg does come through with a couple of breathtaking action set-pieces, one involving a swarm of giant flesh-eating ants, the other a bunch of blow-pipe armed ghouls defending a cobwebby crypt. A rather tasteless moment comes when the film's first big action sequence ends with a mushroom cloud as its punch line. Boy, does that not play in Japan. Then again, cultural sensitivity has never been a strong point of this series, has it?

The "Indiana Jones" project started by taking the old movie serials of the '40s and making them bigger and better. That made them a shipload of money, and as every popcorn film now seeks to be bigger and better, the end result is that none of them actually are. Special effects are anything but. The juggernaut has long since caught up with us and rolled us flat.


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