Hoosier daddy

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The wildest archaeologist in town.

The wildest archaeologist in town.

Rated 4.0

That rambunctious archaeologist with the whip and fedora is back. (Has it really been 27 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark?) Strange to think that the first Indiana Jones movie is now further in the past than the Saturday matinee serials it celebrated, which were in 1981—but there you are. In the ruggedly handsome form of Harrison Ford, Indy may be feeling his age as we pick him up in 1957 (evidently, for Indy, it’s now the years and the mileage), but he’s still fit and hale. So fit, in fact, that he can survive a nuclear test in the Nevada desert. After that, things get a little hairy.

That nonfatal A-blast (Indy hides in a lead-lined refrigerator in the mock-up target town) is a sign from director Steven Spielberg and writer David Koepp (working from a story by Jeff Nathanson and producer George Lucas) that we shouldn’t take things too seriously. Once again, the story is just a clothesline on which to hang an array of cliffhanger action. Stuntmen used to call them “gags”—Spielberg and company take the term literally; Indiana Jones’ exploits always have a wide streak of larky comedy, even when men are being devoured alive by African siafu ants (in South America, but never mind).

Another essential ingredient is a memorable villain, and here it’s a lulu: Irina Spalko, a Red Army officer operating (barely) undercover in the United States. Cate Blanchett plays Spalko like a younger version of Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love, butched-out in a Moe Howard wig and barking at her minions in a well-chewed Russian accent with the nonchalant relish of a great actress making a guest appearance on The Carol Burnett Show.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that while Indy’s boss—Jim Broadbent, stepping in for the late Denholm Elliott—complains early on of the Cold War temper of the times, the movie itself has Commie agents on every street corner; and more brazen than the ones Frank Lovejoy faced in 1951’s I Was a Communist for the FBI.)

Indy’s duel with Spalko moves from the United States to South America with a reprise of those nifty retro maps tracing his flight in thermometer red. Along the way, he picks up some new sidekicks: “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone), a Brit or Australian of uncertain reliability; Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a pompadoured youth dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One and combing his hair more frequently than Indy cracks his whip; and Professor Oxley (John Hurt), an old colleague of Indy’s and surrogate father of Mutt’s whose disappearance unites the two in search of him. And, at long last, Indy reunites with his old flame from the first movie, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, who has aged just as gracefully as Ford). The adventure at hand involves Oxley’s quest, which Indy takes up, to return an exquisitely carved, distended crystal skull to its rightful home in the lost city of El Dorado.

The religious iconography of the series—the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders, the Holy Grail in Last Crusade—makes a shift, divesting itself of its Judeo-Christian roots. The crystal skull of the title is a different kind of religious artifact; the mystery involves extraterrestrial technology and the profound psychic power it conveys. Crystal Skull thus deftly blends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ most popular movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the Star Wars cycle—and, of course, the Indiana Jones movies themselves.

Never mind all that, you ask; how’s the action? Well, there’s no denying that things were a bit more exciting when all the stunts were real than now, when many are computer generated. But the dash and derring-do are as ebullient and kinetic as ever; whatever they lack in somebody’s-actually-doing-this reality, there’s no shortage of somebody-actually-imagined-this audacity (and somebody-actually-paid-for-this profusion).

Perhaps with an eye down the road, Spielberg and Lucas bring LaBeouf aboard to carry the whip in future movies. There’s even a moment at the end when he picks up Indy’s discarded fedora. But Ford snatches it back with a grin. Not yet, kid, his eyes say. I’m still here.