Saturday, May 24, 2008

Domesticating the Action Hero: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

What do you do when your iconic action star shows his age? Harrison Ford was already 39 when the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark cemented his fame after his success as the scallywag Hans Solo in the Star Wars franchise. Now that Ford’s in his later sixties, writer George Lucas and director Stephen Spielberg have lovingly crafted a new 1950s adventure that flirts with science fiction genre-elements as it finds new Soviet villains in the height of the cold war. For much of the first half, I enjoyed watching Ford return to form, especially after the dismal roles he has played in recent years in movies such as Firewall and What Lies Beneath, but something goes wrong as one underground Tomb Raider set after another thunders and erupts in the latter half.

It’s hard to criticize a contemporary blockbuster. Crammed with incident, designed like a theme roller coaster ride with enough of a kinetic kick to drive 13 year old boys to want to rewatch the film repeatedly all summer, these concoctions tend to evaporate in the mind quickly, leaving little but cynical studio marketing strategies as an aftertaste. I did like seeing Mr. Jones reestablish his presence by putting on his fedora after snarling Soviet soldiers pull him from the trunk of a car. When Cate Blanchett abruptly appears as “Stalin’s fair-haired girl” Irina Spalko in a grey uniform, boots, and a black page-boy hair-do, I had to laugh. She’s channeling the razor-tipped boot lesbian Rosa Krebb in the James Bond film From Russia with Love, only Irina carries a sword, and she likes to use psychic warfare for the Soviet fatherland. She enlists Indy’s help in locating a particular crate in a government warehouse that looks very much like the one where the Ark of the Covenant is buried in at the end of the first Raiders. Indy obliges her and then eludes gunfire to effect several hair-breadth escapes into the desert Southwest, just to run into an test atomic bomb blast which he somehow survives by hiding in a refrigerator. After conveniently getting scrubbed clean from any leftover radiation, Indy deals with two FBI men who suspect him of skullduggery because one of his former associates has turned communist.

Once the filmmakers establish the paranoia of the red-baiting era, they largely drop it because a young fellow needs to show up for audience identification, in this case the Fonzie-like greaser Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). Mr. LaBeouf has done good work in Disturbia, and he made his presence known as well as he could amidst more charismatic shapeshifting robots in Transformers, but here he’s just . . . present, yet another bland pretty-boy Hollywood product. One can sense that Lucas needed a young replacement for Jones, but he has no real interest in developing a character. We learn that Mutt likes knives and motorcycles. His character briefly flirts with teenage rebellion by stealing things. He cinematically appears out of a cloud of exhaust riding his motorcycle beside a train, and he likes to comb his pompadour, but that’s really about it.

As Mutt and Indy wend their way down to Peru to investigate a Lost City in the Amazon, the mystery of the E.T.-like crystal skull, and engage in elaborate chase scenes with in the jungle, I found myself brooding on the baby-boomer generational power-struggle on display. Jones has the brand, the fedora, the whip, and the charming smile, but he’s too old for a young leading lady, so Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) shows up to notify him that Mutt is actually his son. To heighten the drama, the three leads run into quicksand so that Indy can learn of his parentage while in mortal peril. Mutt tries to persuade him to grab hold of a snake to save him, but we know that Indy doesn’t like snakes, nor does he seem to know what to do with the cheesy family dynamics of the later adventure scenes. Where’s the edge in mom and pop and junior romping around the Amazonian jungle as every cave yields its secret easily?

After getting bored with the last half hour of Crystal Skull, I worked out what made the first and the third Indiana Jones film work (I walked out on the second). The first film accomplished its goals due to sheer speed, the freshness of the idea, and the filmmakers’ joy in recreating 1940s adventure serials with updated techniques. The third film, The Last Crusade, proved unexpectedly delightful because cunning Sean Connery was determined to upstage Harrison Ford every chance he got, and hilariously he succeeded. With Crystal Skull, one takes pleasure in seeing the hero resurrected, and that nostalgia carries the film for awhile, but once he joins up with a son and his mother, no amount of poison darts, scorpions, and corpse-filled crypts can alleviate the feeling of domestication that settles like radioactive fallout around Indiana Jones.

No comments: