Let's try to put this in perspective, shall we? On the Indiana Jones Scale of Cinematic Achievements, the eagerly awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull places dead last among the four big-screen Indy adventures. Given the quality of its predecessors, however, that can hardly be construed as a smackdown. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is merely one of cinema's all-time greats -- certainly among the top two or three adventure flicks ever made -- while Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) are two sequels that can hold their heads high, obvious proof that director Steven Spielberg and company didn't even consider the option of coasting when it came to producing follow-ups that were going to make money no matter what.
Nineteen years after the last installment, Spielberg and pals have again demonstrated that they weren't about to rest on their laurels. After years of false starts, dead-end scripts and wisecracks about star Harrison Ford's advancing age (would Indy be on the prowl for the Lost Tablets of Geritol?), we have to assume that all involved figured this was as good as it was gonna get. Personally, I would have held out a bit longer for a script more polished than the one delivered by screenwriter David Koepp (based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson), but it's more than serviceable, smartly tossing crumbs to the Indy faithful while moving the franchise forward.
It's now 1957, and World War II has since been replaced by the Cold War, meaning that our intrepid archeologist-professor-swashbuckler now has his hands full battling Commies instead of Nazis. The conflict begins immediately, with Indy and his sidekick Mac (an underused Ray Winstone) in the hands of enemy agents even as the opening credits are still wafting from the screen. Indy's first appearance -- in silhouette -- proves to be as iconic as fans would want.
It seems that the Russians, led by a slinky ball of black-haired menace named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), need Indy's cooperation in helping them obtain an object -- a crystal skull, of course -- that will aid them in their quest for world domination. Naturally, our all-American hero, a firm believer in the adage "Better Dead Than Red," tries to thwart the enemy at every turn, not only escaping from their clutches but then remaining (almost) always one step ahead as he pursues the object himself. His journey reunites him with Marion Ravenwood (three cheers for the return of Raiders' Karen Allen) and also allows him to share adventures with a brash young greaser (Shia LaBeouf, amusingly making his entrance like Marlon Brando in The Wild One) and a loony old professor (John Hurt).
Longtime fans of the series will find the references to past films delightful (there's a visual nod to the Ark of the Covenant, as well as a terrific gag involving Indy's fear of snakes), and they'll similarly be pleased to find Spielberg once again at his most limber: The director hasn't made a film this light and carefree in a long time. This return to his rollicking roots allows him to again create the sort of eye-popping set pieces on which he largely built his career: An entire sequence involving a nuclear test site smacks of vintage Spielberg (not least because it tweaks his own former obsession with middle-class suburbia), while a segment featuring flesh-devouring ants, while relying too heavily on CGI effects, nevertheless delivers the creepy-crawly goods.
The first two-thirds of the film are such a blast that it makes the final section feel even more like a downer than it would under other circumstances. The plot in each of the first three pictures was convoluted, but all the disparate elements eventually coalesced in time for a slam-bang finale. Here, the storyline is needlessly cluttered, and hacking through all the yakety yak with a mental machete is more draining than exhilarating; by the time we get to the climax, we demand something truly marvelous, but all we get is a fairly lackluster finale that shamelessly borrows pieces from the Raiders and Last Crusade endings.
Equally disappointing is the dawning realization that the film showcases paper villains not worthy of Indy's time: Even Blanchett's Irina Spalko is fairly dry, lacking the suave menace of Paul Freeman's Belloq (from Raiders) or the slimy sadism of Ronald Lacey's Major Toht (ditto). As for the heroes, LaBeouf and Allen hold their own (though the latter could have benefited from more screen time), but Hurt's jabbering professor is one of those colorful eccentrics who doubtless seemed more interesting to the authors than to audience members -- a little of him goes a long way.
But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is really about one character, the man who, to borrow the auto slogan, is Built Ford Tough. It's been 11 years since the superstar has appeared in a movie that entertained (Air Force One), and it's been depressing watching this talented performer fritter away a once-illustrious career in garbage like Hollywood Homicide and Firewall. Here, though, the 65-year-old actor again dons the role that fits him like a glove, and his enthusiasm and athleticism (as always, he performed many of his own stunts) serve to further fuel our own glee for the project. On screen, Indiana Jones can be counted on to emerge the hero, but when it comes to Harrison Ford's career, it's clearly Steven Spielberg to the rescue.