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May 28, 2008 > Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - fun yet flaky

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - fun yet flaky

By Joe Samagond

Set in 1957, this fourth film in the Indiana Jones series pits an older Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) against agents of the Soviet Union - led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) - for a crystal skull tied to mystical powers. Indy is aided by his former lover Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the young Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) and fellow (but sleazy) archaeologist Mac (Ray Winstone).

Directed by Steven Spielberg from a story co-written by executive producer George Lucas, 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' bravely tries to continue the saga. It's been 27 years since Indiana Jones first cracked his whip onscreen in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and nearly two decades since the last installment - "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." This movie meets expectations of this rich series by strictly following the established structure of the earlier movies and not attempting to outdo either their previous efforts or the contemporary competition.

All the familiar tactics are here: the retro, B-movie opening set piece; the old-time graphic of a map charting Indy's travels. Spielberg pushes all the right buttons, but there's something about "The Crystal Skull" that seems dry and second hand.

Coherent plots have always been secondary to the action in the series. And this one feels especially flaky. As in past installments, the story is explained by Jones in passages of leaden exposition that slow the action to a halt. The story line concerns Indy's attempts to locate a crystal skull, which allegedly contains supernatural powers, before a band of villainous cold war Soviets get it; then return it to its rightful home deep in a South American jungle. In "The Crystal Skull" the characters are undeveloped; the good professor mouths some mystic mumbo jumbo about ancient civilizations and purloined antiquities, everyone nods, and then they're off again to battle Soviet bad guys or contend with a swarm of flesh-eating ants.

Cate Blanchett, as the icily evil villainess Spalko, is largely wasted in a severe black bob and an unflattering khaki jumpsuit. Karen Allen, as Indy's long-ago love interest Marion Ravenswood, is actually competent expertly steering a tank through the jungle. She is less hysterical compared to previous Indy episodes. Shia LaBeouf acquits himself, without making a huge impression, as Indy's newly-found son, Mutt. Ford is his usual awkwardly righteous self. The series has always been entirely straightforward about its slick shallowness and its reliance on clichˇs.

Spielberg is efficiently consummate and the action sequences deliver exactly what's promised, if nothing more. There are no moments of suspense and there is an economy of bloodshed and gunfire, in keeping with movies of that time period. The ending is a bit far-fetched but not unlike previous installments. Established Indy fans may find nostalgia clouding their ability to accurately judge "The Crystal Skull" in the context of the earlier films. But when the dust settles and the hype vanishes, fans will admit they like it but not love it. The first "National Treasure" film, for example, was a much more exciting treasure hunt story than this fourth Indy movie.

Young viewers who are unfamiliar with the first three Indy movies will miss some of the jokes and may wonder what the fuss is about, especially compared to more sophisticated fare they are used to these days. Indy is still big; it's just that in the new world of mega movie serials, "The Crystal Skull" feels smaller. The movie is moderately fun, but it isn't as good as the original trilogy. Indy lives in a place you can visit again and again, where nothing ever really changes. In this segment, after two hours, you'll be quite ready to go home.

Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 124 minutes

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