Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullIt’s been almost twenty years since the world’s favourite archeologist last donned that fedora that makes him as iconic as any James Bond. Naturally with this large a gap between sequels many Indy fans approached this fourth entry with a certain anxiety and apprehension, some arguing that a perfect trilogy should remain just that. Besides, Harrison Ford had just passed 65, not exactly a prime age for an action and adventure hero. But the ultimate question was had wonder-boys Spielberg and Lucas still got the flair of their 80s heyday? The former’s hadn’t made a “fun” movie since 1997’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and hadn’t made a really good “fun” movie since the original “Jurassic Park” way back in 1993. Lucas meanwhile had tinkered with his “Star Wars” prequel trilogy and it is generally agreed that the new films don’t even come close to rivalling the originals. And while “The Crystal Skull” was met with mixed reactions from both fans and critics, the good news is that they have largely succeeded.

Fittingly, this fourth film takes place a full decade after “The Last Crusade” and thus into a whole new era. The focus of the American struggle has clearly shifted as the 50s arrive and we are plunged into the Cold War. From the outset, Spielberg is firmly in control of these changes as we are introduced to the film’s villains in the form of Soviet femme fatale Irina Spalko (the ever excellent Cate Blanchett) and her minions as they infiltrate a secret U.S. military base, and everything filmed in beautiful pastel colours of soft browns. The opening act will have Jones hardcores squealing with glee at the various in-jokes and subtle details (it’s The Lost Ark!) while the more casual viewers will still be swept away with the whole stylishness of it all and the beginnings of an excellent old-fashioned adventure romp. Back in his more familiar surroundings at University, enter story proper in the form of Mutt, an enthusiastic and Marlon Brando-esque teen played by Shia LaBoeuf. We can criticise LaBoeuf all we want for his turns in “Transformers” among others but “Crystal Skull” is without a doubt his best role yet. He brings Jones a coded message from an old friend, who has lost his mind in search of a lost city in the Peruvian jungle supposedly made entirely of gold.

Travelling to Akator – accompanied by the requisite map transitions and orchestral swell – the pair track down a mysteries skull made of pure quartz which will give the owner powers over the aforementioned city. Of course, Spalko is after the skull and city as well, as is an old flame of Jones’. I’m not going to give it away but let’s just say that Karen Allen also stars. Supporting characters include John Hurt as Oxley and Ray Winstone who plays sly sidekick Mac. But a crucial question still remains unanswered: can Indy still kick ass and wise-crack like he did all those years ago? The answer there is a resounding yes! Even better, David Koepp’s screenplay actually pokes fun at the ageing archeologist (“Damn, I thought that was closer!”), but no way has Ford lost his edge. And this time he really needs to use his wits, especially when seconds away from nuclear annihilation. It’s in these early action sequences, leading up to a great chase through the University that the old “Indiana Jones” feeling really returns and we can applaud the filmmakers for their craft and daring to take on another sequel.

But “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is by no means without faults. Some of the action, the jungle chase and the ants sequence suffer from CGitis. Not because the visual effects themselves aren’t properly rendered but because the audience aren’t as closely involved, as we were for example with the tank chase in the last film. A Tarzan tribute is also completely ridiculous and out of place, and the conclusion (i.e. what the entire skull plot hinges on) is just too Sci-fi. Elements of the supernatural have always been a part of the Jones series but never have they featured so prominently as here. And while we suspended disbelief for the Ark and even the Holy Grail, it’s difficult not to raise an eyebrow at some of the contrivances we are asked to swallow here. As a result the second half of the film sags slightly, once we reach Akator the film never again gets as high as the awesome ride of the opening act. Had Spielberg been able to maintain this high-octane tempo, it would probably have been a real classic. Thus the film can’t quite compete with the original three but nevertheless remains a really fun adventure picture that easily eclipses most other action blockbusters out there. Indeed were it not for Chris Nolan and his “Dark Knight”, this would have been in with a real chance for film of the year in the genre. And the very final scene hits a great Jones moment right on the head.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullIndiana Jones needs his hat, his whip and, very importantly, he needs his theme tune. I would go so far as to say I would have downright refused to see this film if the still peerless John Williams did not return to score. After a three year break, it could be argued that Williams himself is not too dissimilar from Indy – he’s in his late seventies now. The result too is much like the film, not Williams’ best work but still a really good listen. The composer does reprise many of the old themes – Marion’s theme or the Map Room – but adds a few new ones to his palette as well. The skull and Irina Spalko both get great mystery, the latter with a distinctly Russian flair. Mutt too gets a great theme in the style of  a Korngold swashbuckler. It all culminates in “The Jungle Chase” cue which is the best on album.

This latest instalment in the series does not feature Spielberg at the top of his game, but he really comes very, very close. And with the score hitting all the right notes as well we can truly say welcome back Indy! And that is a very warming thought indeed.

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