R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Not The Last Crusade After All…

I was having a discussion with one of my best friends the other day about 2007 as a movie year, and he was saying that lately he’d been having a lot of arguments with people about whether or not the year was a failure. Now my buddy, whose name is Shaun, is a big film geek like myself, and to him it was the year of movies such as Juno, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James, and 3:10 to Yuma. He saw the year the same way I did, and he just couldn’t understand how people could be disappointed with a movie year that included films like those.

My theory about the year is that for all the wonderful pictures that were produced in ‘07, one category where it may have been lacking was in crowd-pleasers. Sure, I LOVED seeing Live Free or Die Hard and I comedies like Knocked Up and Superbad were both really successful, but the meat of the summer was just such a let down. I mean, the trilogy cappers for Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean made huge bank, but let’s face it, neither of them were up to par with the fun each series had brought before. Arguably, the most successful Action film of last year in both execution and commercial success was 300, and that film came out back in March of last year.

As for this year, as I’d said before, 2008 is still in the black with film goers, but it is kind of shaky to some degree. Not having the annual Spring Comic Book Epic (300, V for Vendetta, Hellboy, Sin City) has hurt the year so far in my eyes. Even the movie summer, which started off with Iron Man‘s huge bang, has kind of puttered out in subsequent weeks, with Speed Racer getting unfairly slammed by audiences and critics alike, and Prince Caspian not meeting up to the financial expectations of its predecessor. So it is with the movie year teetering on the brink of disaster that we welcome in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The two men who basically invented the movie summer have laid their ace on the table, and given us back Indiana Jones at least one more time. But will he be able to save the summer or will the Batman Vs. Joker standoff play like déjà vu from 1989? Of course being the ubergeek that I am, I’ve gone on a huge Lucas/Spielberg rampage in the last few weeks, taking in their various trilogies with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapping up my Crystal Skull prep as I await the midnight show on Wednesday night and hope against hope to be able to relive my childhood once again.

Thing is, watching Last Crusade again, for the first time in a long while, reminded me of just how much magic this series can still have. The 1989 entry has kind of always been my least favorite, not matching up to the overall perfection of Raiders or the manic energy of Temple of Doom, and yet as I watched it again, nostalgia hit me like one of those Harrison Ford punches that sounds like a shotgun going off and sends Nazis flying back 10 feet. It surprised me how much love I still have for it, killing me with every joke and thrilling me every time Indy sticks it to the Germans.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, and River Phoenix. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

I don’t know how many people actually think about it this way, but it would probably be easy to consider Last Crusade just a retread. Much like Return of the Jedi before it, Last Crusade brings back many of the familiar aspects of our introduction to these characters, and lets go of the thoroughly dark tone of the trilogy’s second chapter. It’s basic premise, whether its searching for a religious artifact or destroying the Death Star, is very similar to the first chapter, and we get to fight and hate the same bad guys all over again. But then, the power and the joy that comes from both films is how they are able to present us with the aspects of the first film that we loved, but then show it to us in a new way, with bigger set pieces and introducing us to new characters that also become cherished in these mythos.

Most importantly though, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Return of the Jedi both ultimately work not because of the battle scenes or bigger uses of pyrotechnics, but because ultimately both films turn inward at their most crucial moments and become about the struggle between fathers and sons. This struggle comes to represent the larger battle that is outwardly shown, giving an emotional depth that may have even been lacking when we met these characters the first time around. In the end, both films become about father and son accepting each other for who they are, and because of that together they are both able to triumph over evil.

That isn’t to say that there’s not a ton of action and insane levels of fun to be had along the way.

I remember as a kid thinking it was odd that Last Crusade started out with a prelude of Indy as a child. In the hands of another director, this could have turned out to be a painful experience that seemed to wink at itself too often as the young Jones (River Phoenix) becomes the adventurer we love right before our eyes, but just like he’s always been able to do with these movies Steven Spielberg is able to strike the right tone. He keeps the pace tight and stops for jokes, but never lingers on them so long as to allow the audience to dwell on how ridiculous they are. Things are kept light and comical, but never to the point of outweighing the action or the narrative, which in the best Spielberg tradition, is kept breathless throughout this opening sequence. Again, showing Indy’s introductions to bullwhips, fedoras and his fear of snakes could have produced a sizable groan if handled poorly, but with the deft touch of a master director, all ends up well in the end. The sequence ends up working so well, Lucas basically turned it into an entire TV series.

Plus, the moment where Spielberg lingers the most is the moment when we sort of meet Jones’ father. When this seminal moment in Indy’s life is easily dismissed by the other Jones, we’re given an emotional springboard for the rest of the picture, showing how a virtual grave robber ends up being more important to shaping Indy’s life than his own parent. Then when we’re given a full introduction to Henry Jones, Sr. later in the film, personified by Sean Connery, we’ve already learned enough about this character to know him.

To say that the casting of Sean Connery as Indiana Jones’ dad is a masterstroke would be understating it a bit. Of course, in a figurative sense James Bond was always the father of Indiana Jones the adventurer, and here Spielberg literally makes him the father, and yet this isn’t just 007 that Connery is playing here. Honestly, I don’t know that I really cherish one individual performance by Connery more than I do his Henry Jones, save for maybe his defining moment as Bond in Goldfinger. Here, he’s a million miles away from his roguish hero.

Here we have Sean Connery, who played perhaps the most bad ass hero in movie history, wearing a silly hat and deploring violence. The moment when Indy utterly destroys the Nazis in the bike chase, the look of contempt on Connery’s face is priceless. Connery’s Jones isn’t the man of action that his son is; he’s the archeologist that Indiana talks about to his students, the one that spends most of the time in the library, or obsessing over clues and books from the safety of his own study. Yet, this is a complete character for Connery, full of boundless energy in his search for the grail; a man who thinks quite well on his feet sometimes, even if he’s not prepared for the requisite amount of fisticuffs or to properly run a machine gun turret.

Still, the best part of this performance is his chemistry with Harrison Ford. You actually believe these men are father and son, although in reality they’re really not that far in age. The way that Indy almost immediately cowers in front of the senior Jones without even thinking of it, then having to seemingly fight his way back to make his voice heard is a terrific motif that runs throughout the picture. This constant struggle between parent and child keeps the tension up in the film, even if the two are simply sitting and chatting.
It’s wonderful that after Ford and Spielberg were able to really take Jones into a lot of uncharted territory in the second movie, making him evil at one point, and then showing Indiana’s complete transformation from glory seeking adventurer to liberator and savior, we get to see yet another aspect of this amazing character. Jones has to find it within himself to truly break free from his father’s hold on him, and yet we also see that he learns to respect his dad in a way that he never has before. It’s a tightrope that Ford walks beautifully, again reiterating what an underrated actor he really is.

Oh yeah, and as for the rest of the movie and you know, finding the Holy Grail and stuff? It’s appropriately awesome, with Spielberg throwing in iconic moments (“No Ticket!”) and absolutely stunning action sequences. Every time I watch it, I’m stunned at just how close to flawless the final tank chase is in this movie. A moment like Indy hanging on the side of the tank going toward the rock embankment is a moment that goes to show how much these movies stand head and shoulders above every rip off and Johnny-come-lately that has tried to copy them over the years (I’m looking at you Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean movies).

Sure, making Denholm Elliott’s Dr. Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah into complete idiots where much prouder men stood in Raiders disappoints me a little in the movie, but the fun had at their expense is worth it. I can’t imagine the movie without the “he’s got the grail already” punch line, or Sallah rounding up a bunch of camels in the middle of a huge battle. Still, the movie does push the silliness aspect with the trap the Germans set up for Brody with the truck.
In the end though, the movie ends up being pure joy. Being able to pull off the fun of Raiders of the Lost Ark once is a miracle for any film maker. Spielberg was able to pull it off three times, creating a series that is timeless and essential to the proper film going experience. I can only hope that somehow the Spielberg magic is able to give it a go one more time. I know some have said that the beard has lost some of his appeal and the command over his craft that he once had, but maybe this movie will be a return to form even for those naysayers. Hopefully, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can make us all ten year olds again, and no ten year old can argue with an Indiana Jones movie.