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.

Early in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — which had its tumultuous world premiere today at the Cannes Film Festival — our hero (Harrison Ford) and his sometime pal Mac (Ray Winstone) come up against a convoy of tough Russians. "This ain't gonna be easy," Mac says, and Indy replies, "Not as easy as it used to be."

The old-guy jokes are as true for director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas as for the star. It's 27 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark started the Jones boy on his adventures, 19 years since the most recent Indy movie, The Last Crusade, and 30 years this month since Lucas and Spielberg sat on a Hawaiian beach and made a handshake deal for an action film that one would produce and the other direct. They'd be stupid to ignore the toll that time takes on moviemakers and movie stars. All were in their 30s when they made Raiders. Now Spielberg, Lucas and Ford are, respectively, 61, 64 and 65. And don't forget two other crucial collaborators, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn, who have given all the Indy films their cheerfully martial sound and cut-to-the-bone fury.

There are scenes in the new movie that seem like stretching exercises at a retirement home; there are garrulous stretches, and even the title seems a few words too long. But once it gets going, Crystal Skull delivers smart, robust, familiar entertainment. Ford looks just fine, his chest skin tanned to a rich Corinthian leather; he's still lithe on his feet, and can deliver a wisecrack as sharp as a whipcrack. Karen Allen, 56, who was Indy's saucy love Marion Ravenwood in Raiders, still has that glittering smile and vestiges of her old elfin swagger. They needn't break a sweat keeping up with the (relative) kids: 39-year-old Cate Blanchett, the movie's villainess, and Shia LaBeouf, who plays the young lead Mutt Williams, and who may be tapped to continue the series after Ford's retirement — at least that's what Lucas hinted a few days ago here in Cannes.

Crystal Skull is intended, and works effectively, as instant nostalgia — a class reunion of the old gang who in the '80s reinvigorated the classic action film with such expertise and brio. So don't expect the freshness of the what-one-man-can-do plot in Iron Man, or the oneiric visuals of Speed Racer. Spielberg and Lucas, and screenwriters David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson, are looking not forward but back, to the first three films. They know that moviegoers would be disappointed not to see the talismans of Indys past reappear here. Shall we itemize?

1. The Paramount logo dissolves into some kind of mountain. Every Indy films opens this way, from one monument to another. (As Veronica Geng wrote in a review of the first movie, "Spielberg" is German for "play mountain.") In Raiders the logo became a mountain in South America; in the second film, Temple of Doom, a bas-relief on a Chinese gong; in The Last Crusade a big boulder in Utah. This time, suggesting more modest aspirations, or maybe kiddingly deflecting the audience's gargantuan expectations, it's a weeny prairie dog hill, from which a critter emerges just before being nearly run over by speeding cars. We're in Nevada, near Area 51, and it's 1957, a time of rock 'n' roll (Elvis's "Hound Dog" on the soundtrack), fear of the Soviets (and why not? they've just penetrated a U.S. military base), fear of The Bomb (hey, what's that mushroom cloud on the horizon?) and mass sightings of UFOs (coming right up).

2. International conspiracies. Nazis in the first and third Indys, Indian Thugees in the second. But it wouldn't be the '50s without Commies, in the chic person of Irina Spalko (played by Blanchett with the severe demeanor of Cyd Charisse's Ninotchka in the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings and the black bob Charisse sports in The Band Wagon). Rather than the simple matter of conquering the West militarily, Irina is part of a Soviet plot to cloud our minds by getting access to some secret technology that is concealed either in an Area 51 warehouse or in the remotest jungle mountains of Peru. "We will change you, Mr. Jones, all of you, from the inside," she proclaims. "We will turn you into us." Ewww, creepy. Glad that didn't happen.

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