Raging skull

Spielberg coughs up a winner, but with backwash

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Bloated yet undercooked, the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones serial, which began 28 years ago, suffers from too many ideas and not enough focus. If David Koepp's inelegantly pulpy patchwork of a half-dozen other screenplays (written by the likes of Frank Darabont and Jeb Stuart, no less) were helmed by anyone other than Steven Spielberg, the movie would be a disastrous mess. As it is, it's a fitfully entertaining but entirely unnecessary addition to the canon.

Much like Spielberg's work on The Lost World (the clunky Jurassic Park sequel), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has moments of verve and panache but is ultimately undone by too many explanations and endless allusions to the previous films. The cinematic "Easter eggs" will, no doubt, keep salivating fanboys happy, but Koepp and Spielberg have unintentionally created a meta-film of sorts; one that pays homage to films that were themselves an homage to cliffhangers of a bygone era.

Dropping us right into the action, Crystal Skull opens with Dr. Jones (Harrision Ford, of course) and his triple-crossing cohort Mac (Ray Winstone) dragged by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett channeling Bullwinkle's Natasha) and a platoon of Russkies into an Area 51 warehouse. They're searching for a mummy. Why? Well, that's never really clear, but, after a daring escape, Dr. Jones falls in with teenaged Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) in his search to find a colleague who went missing while seeking El Dorado, the lost Mayan city of gold. Only he's really looking for an alien crystal skull, see? And Mutt is the son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen from the first film). Which means he's Indy's kid. And there's lots and lots of talk about hieroglyphics and past events and former colleagues and all sorts of stuff we don't care about. It all culminates in a poorly structured final act that involves aliens or interdimensional travelers or, well, it doesn't matter. The climax completely melts down and becomes an excuse to throw some CGI effects at the screen.

Simply said, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can't justify its existence. Just as giving Indy a Dad didn't make Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade any better, giving him a son seems like a concept in search of a movie. In fact, the two films both trade character development and ingenuity for exposition-heavy narrative and over-the-top but passionless action. Which isn't to say they're bad films — they just fail to meet expectations.

On some level, Spielberg seems to acknowledge this and tries to keep Crystal Skull barreling along. Every time things get bogged down in meaningless talk ... which they do often ... he compensates with a ridiculously extended action scene. This film may not have the grandeur and go-for-broke invention of the first two Indiana Jones films but it's crisply directed and mostly fun (despite some piss-poor CGI). Even at his worst, Spielberg knows how to keep an out-of-control action piece structured and fast-paced. The film's best is a wild motorcycle chase around Yale's campus.

Still, for all his skill, Spielberg is unable to capture the sense of awe, surprise and danger of his earliest films. Part of the problem is Indy himself. No longer a cocky artifact hunter who has to use his wits and willpower to get out of situations he mostly gets himself into, the aging Dr. Jones is now a humorless grump with the physicality of a 30-year-old superman. His acts of derring-do are so painless and his triumphs so assured, the film never creates any drama.

To Harrison Ford's credit, at the very least, he seems engaged. After phoning in performances for the last decade, he manages to bring his ... well, not A-Game but, at least, a solid B to Indy's world-weary tough-guy persona. Unfortunately, Koepp is unable to give him a single winning line of dialogue. The guy's got nothing to work with.

Which is exactly what undermines the talented LaBeouf, neuters Blanchett's villainy and puts the usually terrific Ray Winstone on the sidelines. The return of Karen Allen's character is one of the film's few treats. She and Ford briefly connect but are quickly split apart by Koepp's pointlessly busy script. It makes you wonder why Spielberg bothered to hire such an accomplished (and no doubt expensive) cast if only to waste them.

Of course, comparing this fourth sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark — arguably the greatest action-adventure flick ever — isn't fair. But you'd hope that after a nearly two-decade break, George Lucas and Spielberg would have a few new ideas to add to the mix instead of a competent but half-hearted rehash. It's like the hummable song you've heard thousands of times on the radio but haven't grown to hate. Entertaining but, ultimately, irrelevant.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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