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.
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.