Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is packed with fights and chases and comedy — but then so were the old Tom & Jerry cartoons.
Indy 4, which is the worst Steven Spielberg popcorn flick since the forgotten 1941 — yes, it’s worse than Hook — is a series of campy comedy action scenes set in 1957 and awkwardly linked by a dopey plot that brings together the twin fifties obsessions of Communists and flying saucers, along with a search for El Dorado, the lost city of gold.
Like a petulant high school senior ripping down an old boy band poster that reminds her of the kid stuff she is sure she has way outgrown, director Spielberg and producer George Lucas, who gets a story credit, seem to think they’re too good to revisit the original trilogy so they mock it instead. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark and its first two sequels, the movie begins by blending the Paramount mountain logo into a matched image on film, but this time it’s a molehill, and so many furry little critters appear in reaction shots it’s as if Spielberg thinks he’s making a sequel to Caddyshack. The only truly scary moment is the first glimpse of the Play-Doh mask of plastic surgery that has replaced what used to be Karen Allen’s face.
The movie begins in the Nevada desert, where a sword-wielding KGB agent (a ridiculous Cate Blanchett, doing some embarrassing Boris-and-Natasha shtick) has kidnapped Indy because of what he knows about a mysterious mummy hidden in the same warehouse where the Lost Ark was stashed at the end of the first movie. Ray Winstone plays Indy’s buddy, a fellow adventurer with a secret, but he never has much impact.
Soon we’re in a chase scene set inside the warehouse that sets the tone for the whole movie. The supposed tension is repeatedly deflated with har-har one-liners, the stunts look more like computer simulations than something an actual mortal could pull off, and Indy’s success depends heavily on the stupidity and ineptitude of his pursuers.
Not long later, after a half-hearted rehash of the Red Scare (seemingly this was ordered up by Lucas, who gave us that clunky line about campaign finance reform in Attack of the Clones; Spielberg, even when he is trying to be socially relevant, is about as political as Norman Rockwell), Indy is sought out by a young dropout named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt wants help in finding a professor and mentor (John Hurt) who is also a friend of Indy’s and has disappeared in Peru. LaBeouf, who was well-cast as the nerd in Transformers, is a bizarre choice to play a switchblade-wielding greaser; when he enters the film on a motorcycle decked out like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, it’s as if Richie Cunningham raided Fonzie’s closet.
For no special reason the two of them take off on a mad dash through the Yale campus on a motorcycle, and as much fun as it is to see the Old Campus and the Sterling Library pop up in a blockbuster, the sequence is too goofy to work as an action scene and not funny enough to be comedy. Where Indy spent the first three movies fighting for his life, here he easily brushes aside such baddies as, for instance, a guy holding a gun on him in the back of a truck whom he dispatches with a single kick. Often, he’s just lucky, such as when he goes over a giant waterfall as easily as if he’s riding the flume at Six Flags. His primary goal, it seems, is to work up not-quite-witty witticisms (asked if he has any last words, he says, “I like Ike;” borrowing from the Star Wars series, he says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” a remark that was not actually that sparkling to begin with and which Lucas really should have retired by now.)
Even more distracting is LaBeouf’s ‘50s hipster patter — “smog in the noggin,” “what are you lookin’ at, Daddy-O?” But perhaps the single worst line in a movie full of them goes to Blanchett, who takes time out from a swordfight conducted with LaBeouf on the backs of two speeding cars to quip, “You fight like a young man — qvick to begin, qvick to finish.” As is often the case with Blanchett, she is not a scene stealer but a scene arsonist. She burns up all the oxygen around her.
Spielberg used to delight in springing surprises. The scene in Raiders in which Indy shoots the swordsman got perhaps the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard in a movie theater. This time, though, when Karen Allen reappears as Indy’s old lover Marion the big reveal turns out to be a piece of information that everyone in the audience will have guessed half an hour earlier. It’s hard to pay attention to anything Marion says or does anyway, so strange is the construction site of Allen’s face.
The weak slapstick and perfunctory derring-do — Indy climbs in and out of various caves and crypts, get attacked by disposable savages — add up to so little that when the treasure hunt starts to look like a shaggy dog story it’s not so much a letdown as the fulfillment of a really boring prophecy. Weren’t we promised in the first frame of the movie that what looked like a mountain would soon become a molehill?
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Directed by Steve Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf
2 stars/ 4
122 minutes/Rated PG-13
Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com.