Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
by Steve Habrat
After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.
The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.
The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.
If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
by Steve Habrat
After taking the freaky detour into cult territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg retreated back to the winning formula that they had with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, once again pitting our fedora-wearing hero against the dreaded Nazis. Sadly, they seemed really half-hearted about that return, almost a bit reluctant and preoccupied. There is quite a bit to like about 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father is a brilliant one, but the action and storyline do not seem as spry as they did in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom. It appears that the franchise is a bit winded and in need of a breather, much like our hero after doing battle aboard a tank full of Nazis. With a slightly dull storyline, the true hero here is without question Connery, who is wonderfully effortless as Indy’s father. The two argue, squabble, and work on their relationship all while bullets fly overhead. The plus to all of this is that we get to know just a little bit more about the whip-cracking Indiana Jones but the downside is the film is relying a bit too heavily on the father/son relationship and not enough on the task at hand: Finding the Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade picks up in 1938 with Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) in search of an ornamental cross that he has been looking for every since he was young. After recovering the cross, Indy returns to the university he teaches at where he finds himself approached by Walter Donovan (Played by Julian Glover), who tells him that his father, Professor Henry Jones (Played by Sean Connery), has vanished while searching for the Holy Grail, which he had been obsessed with finding his entire life. After mysteriously receiving his father’s diary in the mail, Indy sets out to locate his father with the help of his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Played by Denholm Elliot) and the strikingly beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider (Played by Alison Doody). As Indy’s search for his father continues, he discovers that the Nazis are also in search of the Holy Grail and if they obtain it, they are guaranteed world domination.
At the time of its release, The Temple of Doom was met with mixed reviews from critics. While The Temple of Doom was a step down from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was a bit too exotic for some tastes. Lucas and Spielberg were hell-bent to get the franchise back on the familiar path that won fans over in the first place. While the familiarity is welcome, I still enjoyed the exotic flavor of the second installment a bit more than the third chapter. The Last Crusade feels a bit too Hallmarky at times, like it is playing things too safe. The tone here isn’t nearly as dark as the previous two films and certainly not as violent. It is clear that this is for a much younger audience unlike the adult oriented Raiders and The Temple of Doom. It is obvious that Lucas and Spielberg don’t want to cause too much of a stir after producing a film that was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating. With playing things safe, Lucas and Spielberg seem to have little heart in the project, almost like they are just cranking it out so the fans will shut up. This doesn’t mean that they disrespect the character of Indiana Jones, giving him even more depth than before, doing away with the macho personality established in the second film, and giving him a proper send-off into a blazing sunset.
In The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones was a flexing superhero that looked like he could have run alongside Rambo. In The Last Crusade, he is back to the Dr. Jones we knew in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe this is due to his father’s supervision? In this installment, he isn’t knocking every single bad guy clean off his feet or ripping off his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps to Elsa. This is a much headier showdown than the battle of the brawn in The Temple of Doom. Here, Indy has to use his wit and intellect to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who stop at nothing to make sure he doesn’t get to the Grail before they do. I did not see Temple of Doom Indy getting swept up in the beauty of Venice and lusting after pretty blonde bombshells. Also enjoyable is the glimpse of a younger Indy (Played by River Phoenix) at the beginning of the film. In it, we get to see that the love of the chase began at an early age and that his relationship with his father was a on the rocks.
Professor Henry Jones end up being the salt that The Last Crusade is in desperate need of. He’s downright hilarious with precise comedic timing. You’ll love his reaction when Indy mows down a handful of machine gun toting Nazis or how proper Indy becomes when addressing his stern father (he calls him “Sir”). Their interactions turn out to be the highlight of The Last Crusade and watching them repair their relationship is a real treat. Connery also gets memorable interaction with bird-brained Marcus Brody. Alison Doody is a scorcher as the flip-flopping Elsa but she serves basically no purpose other than being another thorn in Indy’s side and a wobbly love interest. Glover’s Donovan, who early on reveals that he is working with the Nazis, is probably the nicest villain of the Indiana Jones trilogy, never really making us chew at our nails. He is very similar to the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Byrne steps up to the plate to play the real nasty General Vogel, the guy who gets to trade punches with Indy. John Rhys-Davies also returns as Sallah, who isn’t really given much to do outside of add a bit more comic relief to the action.
There are a few action sequences that do manage to capture some of the adrenaline pumping thrills of the first two films. A battle aboard a tank has some edge-of-your-seat moments but is thrown off by too many laughs and “how convenient” moments. The strongest two action scenes end up being a boat chase and Indy and Professor Jones trying to outrun Nazi fighter planes. Unlike The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade dashes all over the world, jumping from Nazi occupied Berlin to Venice to Jordan. Of all the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade is without question the funniest installment, more concerned with making us chuckle rather than filling us with that sense of adventure that Raiders and The Temple of Doom were keen on. Overall, I think that is why I favor Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom to The Last Crusade. This film feels like a dry rehash without the iconic moments to spice things up. That is not to say that I think that The Last Crusade is a bad film. The Last Crusade is a nice wrap up but it was time for Indy to retire the fedora and hang up the whip for a while. All that globetrotting and saving the world really wears a guy out.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
by Steve Habrat
After the flawless Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was impossible for producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg to make another Indiana Jones film that would be able to compare to the first film. In 1984, Lucas and Spielberg released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an equally rollicking adventure that goes heavier on the supernatural horror but pales in the story department. It also boasts the coolest title in the Indiana Jones saga, sounding like a forgotten B-horror movie from the 50s. The Temple of Doom cuts back on the globetrotting and outdoor scope that Raiders of the Lost Ark had and opts for damp, atmospheric caves that are crawling with bugs, humid jungles where giant vampire bats swoop from above, and underground sanctuaries that are lit by torches, candles, and dotted with rotting skulls. Acting as the prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom embraces a much sillier plotline that reeks of something that would have been right at home in an EC Comic with lots of icky gore to compliment the comic book feel. With The Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg choose to push the action further, wasting absolutely no time at all to jump into all the shooting, running, jumping, and punching, eager to quicken your pulse and get your adrenaline pumping.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom picks up at a swanky Shanghai nightclub in 1935. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) narrowly escapes a brutal encounter with dreaded gangster Lao Che (Played by Roy Chiao), who is searching for the remains of Nurhachi, an emperor from the Ming Dynasty. Indy narrowly escapes the confrontation with Lao Che, dragging local singer Willie Scott (Played by Kate Capshaw) and ten-year-old sidekick Short Round (Played by Jonathan Ke Quan) with him. The trio boards a plane for India but they have to make a quick exit when they realize that the flight has been sabotaged. Indy, Willie, and Short Round finally end up in India where they are brought to a desolate village. The village elders enlist the help of the trio to locate Pankot Palace where the sinister Thugee cult is currently hiding. It turns out this cult, lead by the evil Mola Ram (Played by Amrish Puri), have kidnapped the villager’s children and have stolen their Shiva lingam stone, a stone that supposedly brings the village good luck. Indy, Willie, and Short Round set out to find Pankot Palace but they soon realize that this cult is dabbling in dangerous black magic and may be deadlier than they had anticipated.
Unlike the cleaner cut and handsome Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom is a scroungy and homely blockbuster, one with multiple foul moments. It’s a movie made by overgrown kids for kids. The movie gleefully leaps into mud puddles searching for one nasty visual gag after another. There are monkey brains here, exotic insects there, slimy baby snakes, and a still beating heart ripped out of one poor saps chest. When it comes to the plot, there is no question that the storyline here is stretched thinly and Spielberg fills the film out with lengthy action sequences. At one point, he blatantly addresses the idea that this film is a roller coaster ride in the extended mine car chase that at times resembles an indoor roller coaster. Yet the spirit of adventure is alive and well in The Temple of Doom, the same spirit that kept Raiders of the Lost Ark aloft. There is no question that The Temple of Doom is also a much darker movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that dabbles in child slavery, human sacrifice, and includes prolonged sequences where horror hangs heavy in the air.
While Harrison Ford’s Indy is still as likable as he was in 1981, in The Temple of Doom, he becomes the familiar 80’s action hero that he avoided in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He rips his shirtsleeves off to show off his biceps, is dipped in fake sweat, and pummels every foe that stands in his path. There is never a moment where you fear he won’t make it out of a situation alive. I wish that Spielberg had sidestepped this 80’s staple that was okay other places but a bit out of place for the Indiana Jones films. He does get one moment that is evocative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Indy trading punches with a hulking Thugee guard that is once again played by Pat Roach (the same guy who played the Nazi mechanic in Raiders). It ends in a fittingly gruesome death that mirrors the propeller death in Raiders. Indy finds himself aided by the consistently shrieking Willie, who is appalled by everything she stumbles across. She freaks over bugs, bats, lizards, elephants, and Mola Ram. I have to say that I prefer the tougher Marion Ravenwood to fraidy cat Willie Scott, although Willie does get one hell of an introduction, belting out “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. Another character I remain iffy with is Short Round, who has good and bad moments. At times, he annoys me, there to serve as eye-rolling comic relief for the kids and at times, I rooted for him, especially when we learn about his background.
As far as the villains go, Mola Ram has to be the most bizarre of the Indiana Jones realm. A deranged cult leader with wild bug eyes and with a fetish for tearing the heart from his victim’s chest, he is usually drenched in bright red lighting, his mouth curling into a sick smile. When he puts his demonic headdress on, he is really an intimidating sight. He is also found of dragging his lines of dialogue out, adding extra menace to each and every word. The introduction belongs to Lao Che, a cocky gangster who likes toying with Dr. Jones. They have a delectable war of words in the middle of a crowded nightclub, both Dr. Jones and Lao topping each other’s threats as the seconds pass. Ford himself gets to do bad when he is hypnotized by Mola Ram, which he seems to have a blast doing. It’s only for a short stretch but it is a nice little change of pace for the all-American hero.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does embrace some of the 80’s overkill, which does detract from the overall quality of the film. At times, it seems more concerned with production value and special effects over a lasting story. The effects in The Temple of Doom have not aged gracefully but there are a number of gags that still do hold together, mostly the heart being ripped from the chest. With the cranked up violence, the film is responsible for creating the PG-13 rating and it is easy to see why. Despite having a weaker story, The Temple of Doom has a number of iconic moments that elevate it to classic status. There was no way that Spielberg would ever live up to the first film and in a way, we don’t really expect him to. Featuring one hell of a final showdown on a rickety bridge that will have those who suffer from vertigo covering their eyes, a dazzling opening musical number, and plenty of eye candy for the entire family, Spielberg delivers an essential action film that more than holds its own.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is available on DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
by Steve Habrat
As a kid, I absolutely loved producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved getting swept up in the adventure, hanging on every action scene, and being hypnotized by the sprinkling of horror that boils over at the unforgettable climax. To this very day, I credit Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the films that made me fall in love with cinema and pursue a deeper understanding of the medium. Each and every time I watch the film, it feels like I am seeing it for the first time all over again. I’m sure my anti-Spielberg film professors would be chocking on their own vomit if they read that! To this very day, I still absolutely love this movie and love the fact that it is a tribute to the serials from the 1930s and 40’s. I can honestly say that I really can’t find a single thing wrong with Raiders of the Lost Ark, every actor perfectly cast, every line of dialogue spoken with extreme care, and every action sequence wildly iconic. Right from the beginning, Raiders of the Lost Ark establishes itself as a classic film as Spielberg gives us one of the most thrilling opening sequences to a motion picture and from there, he refuses to let up for two hours. How can you argue with that?
Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces us to out hero Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford), an archeologist who gets himself into one tense, death-defying situation after another. The year is 1936 and the Nazis are currently exploring ways to make their army invincible using occult powers. Two U.S. Army intelligence officers approach Dr. Jones about the Nazi’s quest to find the Staff of Ra, which would reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The intelligence officers ask that Dr. Jones locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get a hold of it and unleash its devastating powers on the world. This quest forces Dr. Jones to enlist the help of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Played by Karen Allen), and old pal Sallah (Played by John Rhys-Davies) to help defeat his nemesis, René Belloq (Played by Paul Freeman), ruthless Colonel Dietrich (Played by Wolf Kahler) and the sinister Gestapo interrogator, Arnold Toht (Played by Ronald Lacey).
Never attempting to be anything it is not, Raiders of the Lost Ark exists solely to entertain all who choose to watch it and entertain it does. This movie is so damn fun, it is hard to believe there are those who resist it. It’s pure popcorn-munching fun that is one of the definitive summer movies. In addition to a light but gripping story, Spielberg packs his film with so many memorable moments, its absolutely unbelievable. Released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark refuses to conform to what was all the rage in the 1980s, which were flexing heroes with absolutely no emotion whatsoever (the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers). Spielberg chooses to give us a much more vulnerable hero, one who has a few love demons scratching at his heart and one who can get hurt (both physically and emotionally). Dr. Jones isn’t always perfect but he is proud to be flesh and blood. It always seems like the odds are stacked against him as he is relentlessly backstabbed and duking it out with forces that we are sure will overwhelm him. A giant rolling boulder chases him, he is dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes (he hates snakes), and trades blows with a hulking Nazi mechanic all while dodging the propellers of a fly wing. This guy goes through Hell to protect the world.
A heaping amount of credit should go to Ford, who is a revelation as Indiana Jones, wonderfully capturing this vulnerability and imperfection. His cranky humor and irritation with his current situation (whatever he may be encountering: hulking Nazi, snakes, Belloq, etc.) is always on point. You practically hear him go “GULP!” when staring down some obstacles he comes across. He is even more fun when he is dealing with the griping Marion, who is constantly giving him a hard time for wronging her in the past. There is a spark between Ford and Allen and we do root for their love for each other to be rediscovered. We know that Dr. Jones wouldn’t be getting as far as he is without the help of Marion and we know that Marion would fall into the clutches of the dreaded Nazis if it wasn’t for Indy swinging in at the last second to save the day. They are like an old married couple that has yet to get married.
Raiders of the Lost Ark packs a trio of despicable villains to torment Dr. Jones and Marion. The best one here is Lacey’s Toht, who is a vaguely perverse, mouth-breathing freak with a nasty burn on his hand. He speaks slowly, allowing each one of his words to hit the victim he toying with. He wishes that he had the charm of Belloq, another slippery snake who snarls and smirks at Dr. Jones from a far. He loves getting the upper hand on Indy—usually leaving him in hopeless situations that will have you drying off your palms. Completing this trio of terror is Kahler’s Colonel Dietrich, the man leading the operation to secure the Ark. They all get their moment to kick Dr. Jones while he is down, only striking when he is down because none have the muscle to throw down with good old Indy. The other baddies that will stick in your mind is Alfred Molina in his debut role as the backstabbing Sapito who leaves Indy to be crushed by a giant boulder and various other booby traps and Pat Roach as a burly Nazi mechanic who gets a prolonged fight sequence with Indy.
Despite being PG, Raiders of the Lost Ark does have a few moments that wander into the horror realm. The climax of the film is nice and ghoulishly nasty, complete with melting antagonists and terrifying demons laying waste to tons of Nazi soldiers. The film is surprisingly violent and does contain some moments that may scar young children. Overall, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a globetrotting blockbuster that made globetrotting action cool. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg set the bar so high for action/adventure films that he couldn’t top himself. The three sequels, while good in their own right, pale in comparison to this installment. Also notable is the easily recognizable score by John Williams, one that compliments the rollicking action like peanut butter does strawberry jelly. While certain aspects of it are showing its age, Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands as the definitive action/adventure film, one that is always imitated but will never be duplicated and one that can outrun the spry CGI blockbusters of today. This is an undisputed classic and absolutely flawless film.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD.