R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Welcome Back Indy…

Does anyone else realize that the last time that anIndiana Jones sequel came out in theaters, Batman and the Joker did battle on screen together? I know its just this weird cosmic coincidence, but it does bring back this wave of nostalgia for me, because the movie summer of 1989 was probably the most beloved of my life. Too young to really be a part of 1982’s insane lineup that included Star Trek 2, E.T.,Blade Runner, Conan, Tron, and John Carpenter‘s The Thing, ‘89 was my realization of what the summer means to us geeks.

That was the summer of Batman, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, and many others. It was all a little more than my ten year old brain could handle at the time. While the stature of all these films may have changed dramatically in my mind over the years, there’s still a part of me that wants to go back to that time every summer.

It’s funny how analysts are predicting such a letdown this summer, because 07’s crop made so much money, even though I think so poorly of the letdowns I had at the theater last year. 2008’s lineup may not have as huge a number of sequels, but in terms of quality I think 2008 can only climb after Spider-Man and Jack Sparrow left us wanting, and so far I haven’t really been disappointed. Every movie I’ve seen has pretty much met or blown away my expectations, and this week was just another example of that.

I know that some are not going to be happy with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for various reasons. The introduction of CGI to the series or Harrison Ford’s age or a shift in tone from the previous movies may just be too much for some viewers to handle, but I couldn’t disagree more. Sitting at the midnight show on Wednesday night, I was that ten year old all over again. Harrison Ford may not move like he used to, but as soon as I saw that whip and that hat, all my concerns seemed go up in flames like the heart in Temple of Doom.
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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Now first things first, for those of you who are out and haven’t seen the movie yet, and want to avoid spoilers, of which there are some in this column, the big question is this

“Does this feel like an Indiana Jones film?”

That answer is unequivocally yes. If that was all you were worried about, then by all means get out there and see this movie on a big screen.

Yes, anyone that knows me or who has read my column for any significant amount of time knows that I am a card carrying member of The Church of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. As a child, no two film makers could even come close to defining for me what a good movie was on the level of these two, but to some degree they’ve both kind of fallen on hard times. I don’t even have to mention why Lucas’ reputation is in the tank at the moment.

On the other hand, I’ve heard more and more rumblings that Spielberg isn’t the man that he used to be. Films like Minority Report and Munich haven’t gotten audiences’ blood pumping the same way that the Beard used to. My theory is that for all of the whiz-bang Spielberg has put up on screen in the last ten years, the bottom line is, his movies haven’t been quite as fun as the Spielberg of old. I mean, when’s the last time Spielberg put out something that was really white knuckles fun? Jurassic Park maybe? And this is coming from a viewer who loves Minority Report.

Well, I can only hope that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull restores some faith in the old flock. For the most part, this is an old fashioned Spielberg/Lucas romp, with furious bad guys, ridiculous jokes, superior action and an amazing sense of wonder. I think more than anything else, this movie reminds us about the magic that Lucas and Spielberg brought to our childhoods. These movies helped shape a lot us. They taught us about what a great film could really be, and that’s why they still work when we watch them now. That’s why its so wonderful that this film is able to stand with those in a lot of ways.
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First and foremost, this fourth Indiana Jones installment gives us back the Harrison Ford we’ve been missing for so long. Let’s face it, the guy that was in Six Days, Seven Nights, What Lies Beneath or Firewall isn’t the same Harrison Ford we grew up with. I’m talking about the guy that made you want to be Han Solo. I’m talking about the guy that somehow trumped Han with Indiana Jones, then wowed you with his performance in Witness. That’s the Harrison Ford I know.

Prepping for this new Indy film, I went out one night and tried to find the best bunch of Harrison Ford films I could. All I found out was that somewhere around The Fugitive, we lost our childhood hero. After that he never had that same knowing grin, and watching that awesome “pissed off” Harrison Ford face every once in a while ended up being a reminder of when Indy throws the German out of the speeding truck holding the Ark of the Covenant or when Han and Chewie had every Storm Trooper aboard the Death Star on the run. Finally, that’s the Harrison Ford that shows up this movie. As soon as we see that bullwhip and he lays into the nearest Commie scum around him, we know it’s the Harrison Ford we’ve been waiting for. Honestly, there’s an energy in his performance that hasn’t been seen since the last time he had the hat on.

It’s a testament to Ford and his performance here, that he’s able to make us believe in this picture, even without many of the characters that we’ve grown to love in this series. I especially miss Denholm Elliott’s Dr. Marcus Brody because Brody was this weird constant in the films. It always seemed as if he was Indy’s closest confidant, and without him the movie suffers just a bit. Thing is, Ford’s Indy is so natural here and doesn‘t miss a single beat, and we as an audience immediately accept some of the new characters here. Really, at times it feels as if this were actually the sixth or seventh Indiana Jones film, and we’ve known them all along. That’s when its genuinely upsetting when some of them end up collateral damage in Jones’ adventure, or even worse, when they end up betraying Indiana.

One of the things that I love the most about the picture though, is how this film is able to really have fun in this era without Nazis. This doesn’t just feel like the same old movie with Indiana Jones plugged into it, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a legitimate 1950’s B-Movie, and in that era serials weren’t popular any more, instead there was the Science Fiction B-Movie, which is what this movie is, complete with all its trappings; greasers, Reds, crazy insane scientists, and um…other types of characters.

With this new era, it’s a brilliant move to make Indy a man a little out of his own time. His experiences in WWII have changed him a bit, made him a little more bitter. With all the Communist hysteria, he’s not even the celebrated hero like he should be, he’s under suspicion of being a Communist sympathizer. I love seeing this disillusioned Jones. He’s even leaving his country in order to get away from it all, but then this adventure is presented to him, and he must do what he can to protect his country from the very villains he’s accused of being associated with. The shot of Ford in full Indy getup rushing into a stereotypical 1950’s house shows the disconnect of this character at the beginning of this picture, and soon after we’re given one of the true indelible images of the film.
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Now, for those who had doubts about Shia LaBeouf in this picture, put your worries to rest. His Mutt Williams is a fabulous addition to the Indiana Jones mythos, helped immensely by Spielberg’s Brando-esque intro and a script that plays to his strengths. LaBeouf acquits himself in all areas in this picture, handling himself in the Action scenes and having nearly as good a chemistry with Harrison Ford as any Indy sidekick has had before him, save for Shortround from Temple of Doom.

Speaking of acquitting themselves, Lucas and Spielberg have helped craft an amazing adventure, that I hope helps to silence their critics. Yes, Spielberg was the actual director here, but you can definitely see the Lucas stamp on this story. Again, I think the combination of the two is really what sets this movie apart from their films when they weren’t together. Some may complain that the movie’s too goofy, but scenes like the Tarzan homage and the return of Indy’s fear of snakes are absolute hilarious riots.
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Spielberg also shows that he can put together an action scene like nobody’s business. From the awesomeness of the warehouse battle to the jungle set truck/boat/monkey/army ant showdown, this movie is a masterpiece of action. Again, Spielberg schools all that have tried to copy his style in the last decade. There’s no telling me that any single action sequence in any Pirates of the Caribbeanmovie has half the excitement and the wit of the motorcycle chase from this picture. I just don’t understand why no one else can pull off the Spielberg magic, but he proves once again why he’s the best.

Now we come to perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard about the movie; the inclusion of CGI. I’d first like to say that with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, no film makers have ever been on the forefront of technology as they have. Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark used all practical effects, but then he also used the best effects that ILM had to offer at the time that movie was made. Yes, there’s CGI in this movie, but I also believe each instance of it was for the betterment of the movie at hand. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and each time only one instance in the movie really bothered me about the effects, which is the shot where Williams stands between two trucks in the jungle chase. Yes, I would have preferred a stunt man there, but honestly, its fifteen seconds of film and LaBeouf does such good comedy work in the sequence that I hardly cared.

Any CGI animals in the film were used quite well and really don’t look bad at all. They’re all CGI because they needed to have them move in unison, and really is that shot any worse than having a bird double-take like in Moonraker? Seriously, complaining about special effects in a Steven Spielberg movie is like complaining about violence in a Martin Scorsese picture. Seriously though, to let things like that ruin a picture with so much heart and fun is really missing the big picture.

Some of my earliest memories are from when I was six and we were living in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. One night my dad took me to the drive-in there and I was watching a movie completely confused because I couldn’t understand why Han Solo was fighting these dudes in skull masks and turbans. Then as I got further and further into the movie, this dude ripped the heart out of some poor sucker and the man I thought was Han Solo ended up being evil for a bit before turning back to the good side and saving all these kids. He even had a little Asian kid as his sidekick that looked a little like me.

This past Wednesday night in a packed theater, I was that little six year old again.
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One of the best lines in the movie has Indiana telling Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood the big reason why it never worked out with any other women. “Because none of them were you honey,” he says. Well, the same could be said to Indiana Jones about any action hero that’s tried to take his mantle as our greatest Action hero in the last three decades and why they failed. Because none of them were him.

We missed you Indy. Thanks for coming back.