Sometimes excellent cooks make a dish you’ve found irresistible before, but it doesn’t come out just right. This fourth in the George Lucas-Steven Spielberg-Harrison Ford series of Indiana Jones movies, high-tech takeoffs on the cliffhanger serials of the forties, is very carefully constructed to replicate the three earlier installments that so many fans hold dear. But in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the old ingredients don’t make for a particularly tasty meal even though they’ve been manipulated by the same hands. Despite all the spit and polish, there’s a slightly stale, musty feel to the movie, as though Spielberg were painting by numbers.
As with “Rocky Balboa,” which came sixteen years after its predecessor, David Koepp’s script acknowledges the passage of time—in this case a full nineteen years since “The Last Crusade”—by updating the action to 1957. The villains are no longer Nazis, of course (not even of the “Boys from Brazil” variety), but a band of Russkis led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). They invade the Nevada Area 51 warehouse where the U.S. government stashes its most secret stuff (watch for the obligatory “Lost Ark” sight gag) and, after a big battle in which a captive Indy is of course involved, make off with an alien corpse from the Roswell incident.
Indy gets away too—something that’s not easy, given that he has to make his escape through a nuclear test site where a bomb is about to fall—and eventually finds himself ejected from his teaching job as a result of the Red Scare black list. Out of the blue he’s drawn into an expedition to South America to rescue his old friend Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who’s has gone missing while on an expedition to discover El Dorado, the City of Gold, and return an ancient quartz skull with mysterious powers to its original resting-place there. What’s more, he’s to be accompanied by a young leather-jacketed motorcycle kid calling himself Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), whose mother is an old flame of Indy’s—none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who proves capable of sparring with our hero no less waspishly that she did in “Raiders.” And there’s a secret she’s kept from him for nearly twenty years. (Hmm, I wonder what that could be.) All the while Spalko and her minions are on their trail, and everybody winds up deep in the Amazon at an isolated cavern where momentous revelations—as well as the usual fireworks—await.
It’s obvious that with slight variations this is the same basic plot as in the previous three pictures, and the construction’s fundamentally the same too. It starts out with a bang, leading to a succession of chases, captures, escapes and fights, punctuated by reams of exposition and jocular bickering. There are the expected sequences involving creepy-crawly things and a finale that summons up literally incredible forces. All the familiar elements are here, deployed along the same lines as in previous installments. But they have a whiff of the autopilot about them. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn (who served in the same capacity on the first three films) don’t show the same degree of elan that they exhibited two decades ago, especially in “Temple of Doom,” which, whatever its flaws, was a truly virtuoso piece from the technical side. Or maybe it’s just that so many directors have mastered the moves that they no longer feel fresh. But whatever the case, one gets the feeling that “The Crystal Skull” is a picture that’s pretty much going through the motions—expertly in many respects, but without adding anything new. (John Williams’ score is also striking for the fact that it’s hard to detect any portion of it that sounds newly minted.)
Much the same could be said of the cast. Ford’s age doesn’t stop him from making Jones’s athleticism engaging—he certainly comes off a lot better here than he did in “Firewall,” where he looked worn and tired—and his grumpy quality is actually more endearing now. But apart from gray hair, Indy hasn’t grown much over the years, and Ford’s content to coast on his natural charisma. Allen can’t hide the wrinkles, but she gives the old college try at recapturing Marion’s spunky attitude, and largely succeeds. Among the newcomers, Blanchett does a younger version of the brutal Commie spy that Lotte Lenya played in “From Russia With Love,” though with a touch more humanity, and seems to have fun doing so even if she never comes across as truly threatening.
On the other hand, LaBeouf isn’t entirely at ease as a sort of cross between Marlon Brando’s “Wild One” renegade with Edd Byrnes’ Kookie character from “77 Sunset Strip,” appearing all too aware that he’s on hand to appeal to the “Transformers”-transfixed adolescents who might not be drawn to a 60-year old hero. But he gets by in the action sequences and handles the banter with Ford well enough. (Imagine him as an older version of Jonathan Ke Quan’s sidekick from “Temple of Doom” or a pint-sized one of Sean Connery’s Daddy Jones from “Last Crusade.) Ray Winstone is surprisingly bland as one of Indy’s old comrades-in-arms, though one who blows with the winds of profit. Still, he has it better than Hurt, who’s obliged to play Oxley until the last reel as a hopeless, shaggy-haired fool. He proves that he doesn’t have a Lear in him.
One doesn’t, of course, go to an Indiana Jones movie for great acting; one goes for great action. Here, however, the action is more busy than really great, and to be honest, some of the CGI effects (like the huge finale, with flaming shards of light, a collapsing landscape and literally out-of-this-world twists) are pretty messy. Meanwhile cinematographer Janusz Kaminski bends over backwards to emulate the bright, crisp style of his predecessor Douglas Slocombe, only occasionally slipping into his own subtler look.
In the end, the name of LaBeouf’s character in “Crystal Skulls” is somehow appropriate. The movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a dog, but in its strict adherence to formula and lack of real panache, it is a bit of a mutt.