Indiana Jones: Smart, Sleek, Familiar

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Paramount / Everett

Shia LeBeouf, left, Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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3. The Fedora, the bullwhip... the snakes! We see the hat just before we see Indy; brown headwear is still in style in 1957. As for Indy's bullwhip, it's still faster and deadlier than a bad guy's gun. In the opening Area 51 scene, he uses it to disarm about a quillion Russkies, and to swing in Errol Flynn style from one warehoused beam to another. (Mutt will later show the same swinging derring-do on Peruvian jungle vines.) As for the snakes, there's just one, but indy is readier to die in quicksand than to use it as a lifeline. The nifty new predators are South American red ants, which Spielberg and Lucas may have remembered from the 1954 movie The Naked Jungle, and which can swarm over a man by the millions and drag him into their formicary for a nice fat meal.

4. A cool car chase. A lot of the elements in Crystal Skull may feel like mandatory reprises of the old tropes, but the high-speed two-vehicle fight between Indy's team and Irina's goons is up there with the Raiders jeep sequence, more complex and sophisticated in its engineering of physical action. (In the post-film press conference this afternoon, Spielberg said, "I believe in practical magic, not digital magic," and in "real stunts with real people.") If there's a scene that film students will be poring over, decades from now, this is the one.

5. Family revelations. Spielberg movies are often about the separation and reconstituting of a family, and the last two Indy films are no exception. In Last Crusade we met Indy's father (Sean Connery) and learned that Indy's real name was Henry Jones, Jr. Indeed, "Junior" was Dad's apparently derogatory form of address for his son. That gag is repeated here, since — as everyone who's paid the slightest attention to pre-release scuttlebutt knows — Mutt is Indy's son by Marion. (Why is he called Mutt? Presumably because, as we learned at the end of The Last Crusade, Indiana was the name of the Jones family dog; Mutt's just extending the breed.) He enters on a motorcycle, in the leather-jacket regalia Marlon Brando sported in The Wild One, and soon displays some of the athletic skills he must have inherited from his absent dad. Whether the smooth-visaged LaBeouf can grow into Ford's craggy machismo — or even whether he can top the teen Indys that have been played by River Phoenix (in The Last Crusade) and Sean Patrick Flannery (in the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) — is a question later Indy installments will have to answer.

6. Archaeology! Recall that our hero's day job is as a professor of archaeology. On vacations he goes out, makes trouble and saves the world. Or does he? Indy's job, basically, is plundering indigenous cultures for treasure, in capers that will cost hundreds of lives and add exactly nothing to the lore of civilization. (And, in three of the four movies, he comes home empty-handed.) But heck, it's an adventure movie; leave all ethnic scruples home. Scholars of antiquity will be pleased to know that Crystal Skull — with its runic inscriptions, vanished languages, hidden caves and dreadful secrets — is the archaeolog-iest Indy film yet. In fact, the movie is a little plot-heavy around the middle. It seems more determined to tell a complicated story than to use a story as the excuse for a convulsive, nonstop thrill ride.

7. Start with a big bang, end with terrifying mysticism. The creation of these movies always has this method: start with the opening and climactic sequences — in Raiders' case, the South American cave with the rolling rock and the opening of the Ark with the melting skulls — and work inward. (Or as Spielberg says on the new Last Crusade DVD: "How do we fill in the middle?") Here, the bang couldn't be bigger. The 12 min. opener takes Indy into Area 51, where he escapes into what seems to be an ideal Levittown ... except that the people are mannequins, a nuclear bomb is about to be detonated, and Indy has exactly one minute to find a safe place to hide. (That place is one of the film's smartest inspirations.) As for the ending, well, we're not giving everything away. Let's just say that Indy and Marion could be The X Files' Mulder and Scully on assignment in Peru.

We'll see how David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson cope with middle age in their X Files movie later this summer. They may suffer from the occasional creaking joints of Crystal Skull. (And, truth to tell, there was more applause here at the beginning of the screening than at the end.) But they'd be hard-pressed to inhabit the sleek, satisfying adventure that three septuagenarians and their pals dreamed up here. There's a moment in the film where Mutt sees Indy negotiate some really cool bit of action, and the kid can't help mouth a "Wow." That's the right response to this inevitable summer blockbuster. Lucas, Spielberg and Ford ain't the Over the Hill Gang yet.

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