Well, it's no "Raiders." We might as well get that out of the way right now.
It would be downright silly to compare "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." You're better off comparing it to the two sequels that came after "Raiders." After the press screening I attended, a friend said to me, "Well, it's better than 'Temple of Doom'!"
The truth of the matter is that "Kingdom," just like the dark "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and the cheeky "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," has its share of glitches. But, unlike the previous films, it seems that director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas are embracing them this time around.
Because this sequel has been nearly two decades in the making, Spielberg and Lucas know that audiences are expecting them to come with the thunder. But even these blockbuster wizards are aware of their limitations. They know that they'll never make another spectacular piece of cinematic pop perfection like "Raiders." So instead, they made a movie that lets you know that you should be OK with it just as much as they are. (As another critic pal of mine pointed out, Spielberg begins the movie urging audiences not to make a big deal out of this by having the old-school Paramount mountain logo dissolve into a molehill in the desert.)
Mostly, "Kingdom" has the Wonder Twins delving into B-movie kitschiness. It's 1957, and our favorite guy-with-a-bullwhip (Harrison Ford) is tangled up with Russian baddies (led by Soviet agent Cate Blanchett) who want him to find an ancient crystal skull that holds mind-controlling power. So along with a hotheaded, info-carrying greaser (Shia LaBeouf), who comes to Jones for help finding his missing mom, Jones goes overseas to find the skull before they do.
This plot is courtesy of a Frankenstein's monster of a script, patched together by Lucas, Jeff Nathanson, David Koepp and a bunch of other high-profile screenwriters over the years; it discards things as quickly as it introduces them.
The first 30 minutes or so (which are not bad, by the way) spends so much time establishing, quite intriguingly, that Indy is now living in America during the paranoid, Commie-hating, bomb-dropping '50s -- the wrong time for a crazy thrill-seeker like Jones -- that you think that's mostly what the movie will be about. But once Indy goes to the timeless jungles of Peru, jumping right back in his action-filled element, the movie loses interest with the era.
Spielberg makes up for the story's lack of cohesion (and coherence) by keeping the pacing swift and the action sequences busy. Truly the centerpiece of "Kingdom" is a hyper, heavily CGIed jungle chase sequence that includes everything from a swordfight to swinging monkeys to killer ants. There's so much for the audience to nibble on, it may not even register to them that it goes on a bit longer than it should.
Ford is amusingly loose and rubbery-limbed in this flick, which must be a shocking first for the usually steely, repressed actor. It seems he's playing Jones in a more obviously wink-wink fashion than ever before. When he appears for the first time -- as Spielberg catches every iconic inch of him -- Ford, with a satisfying smirk across his face, appears to be acknowledging to the audience that he knows you're glad to see him.
Blanchett, covered in a Louise Brooks wig and sounding more like a nightclub torch singer, is more hammy than villainous. I have to say she's the least intimidating heavy in the whole series. It's so wonderful to see Karen Allen back as original heroine Marion Ravenwood that you wish she had been given more to do than drive and swoon every time Ford/Jones drops a smooth-pimp line on her.
However, I was surprised to find that LaBeouf and his chip-on-his-shoulder, leather-jacketed Marlon Brando routine doesn't wreck the movie. I guess LaBeouf, along with Spielberg and Lucas, wanted to make sure that his character is appealing and likable because -- and I hope I'm not giving anything away -- we will be seeing much more of him in the future.
What I took away from "Kingdom" is that, just like its title character, Spielberg and Lucas can't help but reveal that, when it comes to rock 'em-sock 'em films like this, they're not as sharp and quick-witted as they used to be. Their hearts may still be in it, and they're ready to take on the challenge. But things don't turn out -- there's a bit of limping, some sore spots, thoughts don't come out as clear and focused -- as smoothly.
A balancing beam of good and bad points, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a reminder that once you reach a certain age, you'll never be as perfect as you once were. And, really, you should just accept that and try to have some fun -- but not enough that you might break something.