For those who've thrilled to previous installments of the Indiana Jones saga, the anticipation of watching Harrison Ford take up the brown fedora again after two decades is very much like an ambivalent homecoming: will the venerable farmhouse of our youth retain its charm and character, we wonder? Will the roof leak? Is the foundation sagging a bit?
Of course, Ford's not the only grizzled veteran on the premises - there's also director Spielberg to be considered, and of course (co-) scripter/producer Lucas. But it's Ford who'll have to actually take up the whip and sneer at the camera and engage in fisticuffs with the bad guys. Can this over-achieving Hollywood triumvirate bring back the old Saturday matinee shoot-em-up action-adventure magic, accomplished with varying degress of success on three prior cinematic outings?
Yes, Virginia, they can.
This latest installment brings Indy and contingent into the youthful nuclear age (or "nucular," as - I'm sad to report - Indy/Harrison refers to it); thus, the bad guys complicating his professional life and interfering in his archaeological affairs are commies from Russia, as opposed to the German Nazis we whipped vicariously in ... the Last Crusade. Serving as arch-villian is Cate Blanchett, doing her best Natasha Fatale (and it's a pretty good one), emanating seductive ill-will while dressed in jodpurs and black leather boots. Crack that whip!
Seems Natasha (er, I mean Irina Spalko) and her commie minions are after a certain artifact housed in a certain warehouse in the midst of a highly-secure (though perhaps not quite secure enough) Nevada military base. And she's kidnapped Dr. Jones and his partner in archaeological derring-do, Mac McHale (Ray Winstone), to assist in locating it among the row upon multi-acre row of boxes and crates. Through the usual inducements (including, most notably, threat of death), Indy is convinced to use his unique knowledge of the item to home in on its location.
Things happen, and Indy somehow ends up in a quite ordinary house on the edge of the desert populated only by - hm - mannequins. I think you see where this is going, and if not, well... "give me '50's-era Nevada history for a kiloton, Alex."
Cate B. in dominant mode
Meanwhile, Jones' unwilling participation in the warehouse heist lands him in dutch with the FBI (standing in for Homeland Security), placing his teaching position at the university in jeopardy. When he hears that his collegue, professor Oxley (John Hurt), has turned up missing while searching for some semi-mystical artifacts in Peru, Indy takes out after him - but only after the bouillabaisse has been thickened with the introduction of a young man sporting Marlon Brando Wild One garb (Shia LaBeouf, as Mutt). This rather abrasive misfit wastes no time making an impression on the cloistered ivy league academia.
On to Peru, where another blast from the past confronts our intrepid hero in the person of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, perky-faced as ever - though slightly weathered, as befits her age). Marion actually has some surprising news for Indy, but she reveals it only after he and she are neck-deep in quicksand and in fear for their lives. The manner in which Mutt extracts them from their sinking situation is ingeniously ironic.
It's in the Peruvian jungle (with Hawaii locations standing in) that the action peaks, and Mr. Ford gets the opportunity to show us that he's still got the old Indy moves. And he does have them - most of them, anyway - with an episode of two-fisted fisticuffs against a strapping Russian officer coming off surprisingly well. In fact, the only area in which Ford can be seen to falter significantly is in long-winded wordy expositions where he attempts to explain archaeological/mythological intricacies without sufficient pauses for breathing: this stuff just doesn't roll off his tongue like it used to. But, that's O.K. - he's still adept at using the bullwhip.
There's an insidery thrill to hearing Indiana comment, during an escape attempt through the jungle which has been poorly planned by young Mutt: "This is intolerable" - directly quoting his formerly curmudgeonly, now dearly departed father (Henry Jones, as portrayed by Sean Connery in ... the Last Crusade). It's these sorts of resonant references that make a film franchise worth returning to, and there are several included in the movie. The battered hat in particular gets extensive metaphorical play here, acting as both a bridge to the past and a harbinger of what the future might hold, if box office results and fan appeal warrant.
Shia in Brando garb - minus the visor cap
As for the treasure trove pseudo-historical backstory, think Erich von Däniken meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a dash of John Keel thrown in for flavoring. I won't get into details, but if I say that the crystal skulls which bind the story together turn out to not have been carved by human hands, this may put you on the path to illumination. Or you could just go see the film.
As expeditionary events near their conclusion, we're presented with a mythic diorama in which a battered Indiana Jones appears alone in a corner of the frame, silhouetted against a storm of light and debris, staring off with wonderment at the latest - and perhaps last - of the great enigmas he's encountered in a lifetime of adventure. It's a touching and melancholy cinematic moment.
UNIVERSAL TRUTH: "We seem to have reached the stage where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." - Dean Charlie Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), to Indy
EVER THE PATRIOT: "Any last words, Dr. Jones?" - Irina Spalko to Indy "I like Ike." - Indy's reply