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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Cut to the chase
The new Indy offers more thrills and chills, but why?
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The series is out of synch with the times we now live in.
The series is out of synch with the times we now live in.

Are you nostalgic for the nostalgia of yesteryear? When Indiana Jones first hit the big screen, digging up relics and slapping Nazis around, he was a throwback to the swashbuckling heroes of the old Saturday-matinee serials that creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had cut their teeth on. It was the '80s looking back fondly at the '30s and '40s, even the '50s, and it fit right in with that whole Reagan/Bush, Morning in America thing. Rather than tackle the ambiguities unleashed by the '60s and '70s, we would return to simpler times, when Good knew where it stood and so did Evil, when even the quest for the Holy Grail could be reduced to a boy's adventure story. With his trademark fedora, bullwhip and leather jacket, but especially with the smirk that Harrison Ford brought to the role, Indiana Jones became a cinematic icon - the adventurer/archeologist who claimed the ancient world's antiquities for Uncle Sam's private collection.

As everyone knows, he's back at it again, some 19 years after what some of us thought was The Last Crusade. Everyone's older now - Spielberg, Lucas, Ford, us. But what really seems old, and rather tired, is the idea itself, that a movie can be devoted almost entirely to thrills and chills. When 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark opened by cutting to the chase, then cut to another one, then another, it seemed so fresh and new. And Spielberg, who has a better feel for the space-time continuum than anybody this side of Albert Einstein, knew just how to move those chases along. It was like an all-downhill roller-coaster ride, a two-hour movie trailer, and you left the theater both ecstatic and exhausted. The plot was all twists and turns, scrapes and escapes. And the story...well, it was all burial chambers and secret passageways, riddles posed and riddles solved, with just enough romance thrown in to keep us from wondering why Indiana Jones never got married.

What does Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have to add to all this? Not much, I'm afraid. There's a whole new batch of thrills and chills, but they don't seem all that different from the old batch. And Spielberg, who's back in the director's chair, seems a little disengaged this time around. The action sequences are clean, even elegant, especially compared to what passes for action sequences these days. But they never get you all the way to the edge of your seat. They never really surprise you. And they lack the finish that Spielberg brings to his best work, his ability to show us more with the camera than we're capable of taking in with a single viewing. The opening sequence, set in that government-conspiracy shrine called Area 51, could have been done by anybody. And these have usually been mini-masterpieces, Spielberg saving the best for first. Only the initial appearance of Jones' hat, announcing either his arrival or his departure, has the wit and economy we've come to expect.

Jones emerges from the trunk of a car, looking worse for wear. Of course, he's always looked worse for wear; that's part of what we like about him. When he takes a punch, you can see where the punch was taken. This time, the punch has come courtesy of some Russian soldiers, who've broken into Area 51 by impersonating American soldiers. It's 1957, and the Red Menace is on the march, attempting to spread its influence in much the same way a colony of red ants will later in the movie. This particular contingent is led by Irina Spalko, a Commie fembot given the full Rosa Klebb treatment by Cate Blanchett. That Ms. Spalko will not go down in movie history as one of the great villains can be blamed on the script, which never gives her anything to work with - a signature line, say. Nevertheless, she will be hunting Indiana Jones to the wilds of Peru, where there is a crystal skull said to endow its bearer with the power to control minds. The Commies were always into mind control.

Could I just say that the crystal skull, when you finally get a look at it, is kind of a letdown? So is the kingdom of the crystal skull, given that we were already here - in Peru, anyway - in Raiders. Lucas, who's in charge of the story, may feel like we've come full circle. It felt to me more like we were going in circles. He's been brooding over this story for years, but you can't really see any evidence of that. Instead, there's a whole lot of archeological mumbo-jumbo, lines like "These aren't just drawings, they're directions." In fact, there's so much posing and solving of riddles that it all starts to seem like an off night of Dungeons and Dragons, mysteries with no real mystery to them. And it's not like we're supposed to be able to solve these riddles ourselves; that's always been Indiana Jones' job, and Jones' alone. But why does the movie have to lead with them, especially when there's something we do care about, Indiana's relationship with the family he never knew he wanted?

Coming on like the kid brother of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Shia LaBeouf is Mutt Williams, a greaser on a motorcycle. And Mutt, it turns out, is the son of Marion Ravenwood, the plucky charmer whose crooked smile seduced Indiana (and an entire generation of young men) during Raiders. Lo and behold, Karen Allen, now well into her 50s, is back, and she's as pluckily charming as ever. Unfortunately, she's not been given very much to do either. LaBeouf has a more central role, though, as Mutt and Indiana work out some of the same issues that Indiana and his father worked out in The Last Crusade. That was one of the highlights of the series, Sean Connery's character managing to bring out something in Indiana that we hadn't seen before - the inner child who would never quite get around to growing up. And I wish I could say the rapport, the sense of a real connection, has been passed down to the next generation. It hasn't, for which, once again, blame the script.

Don't blame Ford, anyway. At 65, he's become a bit of a museum piece himself, finally well enough along in years to qualify as a grumpy old man. But he seems game enough, and he still looks great in all those clothes straight out of the J. Peterman catalog. Indiana may be a little past his prime, however - out of synch with the times we now live in. With our military pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan, swashbuckling heroes may not be what we're looking for right now. (We're looking for heroes who, like Jason Bourne, are looking for themselves, trying to figure out where it all went wrong.) Also, the world's antiquities are now being reclaimed by the countries from which they were taken, an issue that casts a shadow over Indiana Jones' illustrious career. But the real reason he's past his prime is that he's run out of places to go. When he survives an A-bomb test at Ground Zero, you know he's jumped the shark.

Then again, jumping the shark - taking things past the point of ridiculousness - is what he does best. Many movies have tried to imitate the Indiana Jones series, from Romancing the Stone to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, but none have captured its unique blend of heedless momentum and glances over the shoulder at movie history's richly exploitable past. Spielberg and Lucas were really on to something when they decided to cram everything they'd learned and loved about movies into one single movie that would bolt out of the starting gate and not slow down until it passed the finish line. But there are only so many times you can do that before the race starts to seem like every other race we've ever seen. Indiana Jones has had a nice long run, trotting the globe and restoring our faith in adventurism. But even with some good years left on Harrison Ford, even with Shia LaBeouf waiting in the wings, maybe it's time to hang up the whip.

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