”What are you, like, 80?” the brash young James Dean wannabe asks the familiar-looking professor of archaeology in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The cocky kid (who demonstrates an awful lot of Indiana Jones’ spirit in his swagger) calls himself Mutt, and is played with a kick by Shia LaBeouf. The oldie doesn’t need to tell anyone that he’s Indiana Jones, full-time whiz with a bullwhip and first-rate advertisement for the sex appeal of a good hat. In the person of a more gracious, less sour Harrison Ford than we’ve seen recently, 80 is a lighthearted code for the new graying-but-potent 65, an age that rarely allows female stars to joke about the effects of time, but suits the manly star of the franchise like a supple leather jacket. The truth is that this particular action hero has always come across as a seasoned bird, even when audiences first met him nearly 27 years ago.
What Indy has been doing since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a bit of a muddle in Steven Spielberg’s nostalgia-fueled national holiday of a sequel. And so, for that matter, is the origin of the cranium under pursuit and its place in the mythology of an extinct civilization. Instead of clarity, we are treated to airy philosophizing, such as when one character, with a Yoda-like flourish, refers to the ancients’ relationship to ”the space between the spaces.”
We do know that it’s the Cold War 1950s. Indy has been kidnapped at the behest of the power-mad, slinky Soviet femme fatale Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, vamping in a formfitting gray uniform that Garbo’s Ninotchka might have coveted). Irina wants him to help find the skull because it’s the key to mind-controlling knowledge. Mutt, meanwhile, wants Indy to help him find his missing mother — this wouldn’t be a Spielberg saga if some young person weren’t longing to repair a family — and offers archaeological lures as a job incentive.
Anyhow, if Indy is a salty coot, the movie sticks to the old ways, too. At its best, it’s a satisfying shuffle of the deck of famous Spielbergian moments that have gone before in E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first 20 minutes, especially, are a blast of old-timey pleasure, as Indy is reintroduced, Irina is unveiled, and the production team shows what the king of witty action can do when he floors it. In a great, dark joke, a lovingly re-created suburban tract straight out of E.T. turns out to be a Potemkin village of mannequins awaiting vaporization during an atom-bomb test.
That still leaves over 100 minutes to fill, though. And so everybody runs through their chase paces: There’s Indy, Mutt, Indy’s feisty former sweetie Marion Ravenwood (hooray for Karen Allen!), Indy’s bonkers former mentor (John Hurt), various villains, double agents, monkeys, tribal gentlemen, skeletons, voracious ants, and, of course, a snake or two (why did it have to be snakes?). Before long, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull becomes a reminder of the finite pleasures of Spielberg’s particular Indiana Jones bag of tricks, no matter how bulging with technical elegance the satchel. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is crystalline, but David Koepp’s unsubtle screenplay is considerably less brilliant, maybe because his attempts at conveying the gee-whiz rhythms of atomic-age times are overwhelmed by the requirement to convey information about who’s chasing whom where, and why. The skull may be transparent, but the plot is murky as hell.
Of course, there’s no question who’s going to win. Indy represents the wisecracking capitalist West, and he’s battling Irina (the humorless totalitarian East) for possession of what looks, after all, like a Plexiglas football with oversized eye sockets. Any faint, interestingly acrid whiff of commentary on 1950s political conservatism — and its application to our own era — is forcibly stamped out. In this revival of the Indiana Jones franchise, everything is new and nothing is new. The movie’s legacy may simply be the melee that ensues when Spielberg cracks the whip and moviegoers scurry for tickets. B-