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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A day later, I'm thinking about the person who, decades from now, is going to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull before seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark. The fourth episode in the Indiana Jones cycle will not be unintelligible, but a great deal of its enormous cheerfulness may seem baffling: why is everyone having such a good time? Everyone in the movie, that is, as well as everyone who has seen the earlier one. My bet is that, once this poor soul does get round to seeing Raiders, the experience of having seen the two films out of sequence will be forgotten. The bond that Harrison Ford and Nancy Allen established in 1984 is still one of the strongest that the now-venerable actor has ever struck, explosive enough, perhaps, to blow the intervening episodes, with their magic stones, ancient chalices, and horrifically miscast female leads, quite out of mind. Mr Ford's swashbuckling hero as good as acknowledges the unsatisfactory nature of the actor's other entanglements, neither whom had what Ms Allen's Marion still spectacularly has: a rightness for the part as big as her amazing smile. The palpable relief with which Marion and Indy stumble back into one another's lives will be shared by everyone who enjoyed their first encounter of the close kind.

Then there are the throwaway references to the earlier installments: the portrait and statue of Marcus Brody; the Ark of the Covenant, still in storage after all these years; the interminable car chase along the edge of bottomless cliffs... The last, of course, is a reference that seems to make perfect sense on its own, but its richness depends on echoes of earlier ordeals, just as the end of Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) might seem grotesque to anyone unfamiliar with the fates of other heavies who have chosen poorly.

The one new note in this consolidation of old-fashioned movie-making skill is, not surprisingly, contributed by Cate Blanchett. Her character, Irina Spalko, is billed as the movie's bad guy, but this is a mistake; neither is she the femme fatale. Irina is a beautiful crazy person with the grace of a Bolshoi prima ballerina, and Ms Blanchett spins to a mad pirouette, threatening not grievous bodily harm so much as unforgivably outrageous camp gesture. That's a paradox, of course, as no truly outrageous camp gesture is unforgivable, but Ms Blanchett has the wisdom to withhold. Instead, she embodies the nonsense that this movie celebrates, with its Nasca Lines by E T and its flying-saucer finale. On paper, the story of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a skull, by the way, that refers shamelessly to another series of improbable adventure films) is rubbish, but by trusting everything that they know and love about the old movies, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have created a swatch of joyous excitement that has the good taste to have nothing to do with good taste. 

Shia LeBeouf is to be commended for holding his head well above water in this festival of potent hoakum and sterling celebrity. He makes the transition from comb-stuck juvenile delinquent to nattily proud son with commedable persuasiveness. Ray Winstone, a pastmaster of ambivalence, nonchalantly plays both sides of the Street of Good and Evil without declaring for either side. John Hurt's addled professor doesn't start talking starchy sense until the movie has been hooked by the tractor beam of inexorable climax. Even the crash-dummy families at the nuclear test site look super. And finally, after generations of movies set at colleges aping the glories of Yale, we're shown the real thing, and it's magnificent.

The real title of this showboat ought to be Indiana Jones: Back on Track. (May 2008)

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