Sunday, June 01, 2008

The 5th Best Indiana Jones Movie

Last night, I finally had a chance to check out the new Indiana Jones movie, after months of anticipation. Let's set the stage: I grew up with Indiana Jones. 27 years ago, this movie burst on the scene, with Han Solo himself finally getting a movie all of his own. And what a movie! A tribute to the classic 1930's serials, with Spielberg's trademark action and humor, and Lucas' soaring was like the all-star game of moviedom. Like all others, I was hooked on the Fedora and whip. We suffered through the next prequel (I maintain that no prequels have ever, nor may ever, succeed on the big screen...but that's a blog for another day), and were rewarded with the masterful final movie, eight years after it began.

And then Indiana Jones was gone...until last weekend, where, defying all odds of age, fatigue, the master Raider unfurled his whip, and swung back into our stunned and delighted hearts.

There is much to like about this film, primarily that it even exists. So many great films with fantastic characters, we want to see again and again, even if they can't recapture the original spirit. The epic trilogy of Star Wars, for example, inspired an entire universe of films, TV, books, comics, goes on. Raiders of the Lost Ark single handedly revived that hat business. So, if we see the classic team up again, it's just great to see them. But so often, after so long, the magic cannot be recaptured. Think of Godfather III, which might have been a good movie, if not for poor casting. Or, more recently, the abomination that were the new Star Wars films. Alas, like those, this new installment didn't make the grade.

What I liked:

- They did a very good job of trying to reflect that time had passed in Indiana Jones' world, as well. They cleverly caught you up on what he'd been doing with a few offhanded comments about the OSS, the war, spying on the Russians, etc. They also did a good job, despite reviewers saying to the contrary, on handling the reveal and consequent adaptation of the existence of Mutt, Indiana Jones' newfound son. And major kudos to bringing back Karen Allen: yes, she may have aged (who among us has not), but Marion Ravenwood is still the best Indy female foil. I miss her drinking contests, sure, but she still had that trademark cocksure bravado.

- They used a good combination of camera angles and effects to mask Harrison Ford's doubles in the more physical scenes. The man is 66 years old, after all; let's let him have a double and agree it's Ok. Still, it was impressive to see him bounding up those boxes in the warehouse still; Indy's still got some spunk.

- The plot was typically epic, and the characters were as wonderfully two dimensional as ever. Cate Blanchett's Soviet villain was actually spot-on, as was Shia LaBeouf's easily irked Mutt.

- Hey, who can resist the classic score, and the scenes of the red line tracing across the map as the montage of planes run in the background? Nobody does it like Spielberg.

- As East Coast Charles pointed out, the sounds of punches in the Indiana Jones movies are unlike any other film. They have a snap that is the perfect balance of comic, cartoon, and classic serial. And this latest installment kept throwing perfect haymakers.

- Love the in-jokes. The warehouse, with the broken box revealing just a hint of the Ark of the Covenant, was perfect, as were the self-deprecations about his age and references to Sean Connery's character. And the breeze blowing the Fedora to Shia's feet at the end was a nice setup.

Ok, now time for the bad news. What I did not like:

- The movie is entitled Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. See those first two words? Actually, see that first word? Great: that's the only time you will see or hear it all movie. Yup, Indy, the coolest name ever, is now Henry. You remember, at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the fantastic comic reveal of Indy's given name? Well, apparently, that killed the name Indiana Jones for this entire film. Instead, he's Henry Jones, Jr., invoked so often, you want to kill the screenwriter. In fact the only person who utters Indy's moniker at all is Marion Ravenwood, and that with only the occasional "Indy!" Scream in peril or surprise. Even his buddy, Mack, calls him "Jonesy." One word for this: sacrilege.

- The plot is utterly unengaging. If you have not seen it, I won't spoil it, but it starts in 1957 at Area 51...guess what the movie's about? The previous films focused on various religious iconography and their treasures. With this subject matter, the climactic final scene was obvious from the first locations.

- Um, I think Indiana Jones used some iconic weapon...something that every kid for decades after wanted to master. Oh, right, the bullwhip. Glad I remembered it...I wish the makers of this film had. Know how many times we saw the whip? Twice. Yes, that's it. Know what it was doing? Once it was used in classic style, as you have no doubt seen from the trailers, swinging through the warehouse. The other time? A lame toss to help Mack to safety. This is THE WHIP. C'mon!!! Not to mention that you introduced a story element where the treasure was magnetic, making most guns useless: could you not have come up with a clever fact that the only good weapon would have been the leather whip?? What a miss.

- Harrison Ford was perfect as Indiana Jones as he always expressed a mix of energy, enthusiasm, grizzled experience, and utter astonishment that he kept surviving these unbelievable situations. Here, he's just tired and grizzled. The snappy patter that used to be his trademark is flat, and bereft of any snap. And let's be true here: we came to see Indy, not a tired Henry Jones Jr., but that's what we mostly got. Give us what we paid for.

- The supporting cast was wasted, which was never the case in past films. Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies in Raiders. Sean Connery and Denholm Elliot in Crusade. And in Temple of Doom....ok, forget Temple of Doom (so many have tried). But still, you had rich characters here who do almost nothing. Shia Lebouf, who was so good in everything else before now, was almost window dressing. Ray Winestone, who was perfect in The Departed, was a caricature here. What the hell was John Hurt doing here? He was practically a mime! Only Cate Blanchett shined.

- Where is the classic horrifying end to our villains? The climactic Ark scene of melting faces of Raiders still gives me nightmares. Temple of Doom gave us still-beating hearts ripped from the chest. And we had the rapid aging and disintegration at the end of the Last Crusade. These were scary, and for kids made the films all the more poignant: this was adult stuff. Here? A digital dissolve into dust. Perfect for today's sensitive children. Blech.

In essence, this film was not better than any of the three previous ones. But I titled this post that it was the 5th best; why? I contend that The Mummy was an Indiana Jones movie, and a damned good one. You had the scholarly aspects, the derring-do, the religious backdrop that leads to treasure and grave was probably the third best Indiana Jones film, even though it did not involve Indiana Jones. This one ranks below it, and, in my opinion, below Temple of Doom.

Indy (excuse me, Henry), it was nice to see you, and thanks for coming back. Always great to get together, and talk about old times. Next time, maybe we can just pop in the Raiders DVD instead. Or maybe we can just hope for more with August's release of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. In any case, it's time to let Henry get back to the classroom, and out of the field.

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