Page 1 of 3
Professor Jones' exploits in high-def - just as thrilling as you'd expect them to be....
Paramount Pictures / 482 Minutes / 1981-2008 / Rated PG/PG-13 / Street Date: September 18, 2012
His name is Indiana Jones. He’s a globe-trotting archeologist. He has a hankering for religious objects. He does not like snakes. And he is named after a malamute dog - George Lucas', in fact. Sitting on a beach in Hawaii with Steven Spielberg, the two hatched a story of an intrepid adventurer on a quest for supernatural religious artifacts. It would be a throwback to the Saturday afternoon serials the pair loved as kids. Jones would be a little rough around the edges and somewhat of a chauvinist, but idealistic enough to plunder for passion, not profit. For Indy, all artifacts belong in a museum. And they would get Tom Selleck to play him. The only problem? CBS wouldn’t release him from his Magnum P.I. series commitments.
Luckily, Lucas and Spielberg would fall back on Harrison Ford, a bit of wonderful serendipity. Raiders of the Lost Ark became the biggest blockbuster of 1981, snagging six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and cementing Spielberg and Lucas' stature as the mythmakers of their generation. It is hard to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford in the role - he brings to Indy the scruffy good looks of a ‘30s serial star coupled the Aw, Shucks rascal he perfected in Han Solo. Jones is ultimately a bit of a pragmatist - he's not above ducking a sword wielding foe with a single, well-placed bullet. Ford played it straight. Audiences ate it up.
Raiders of the Lost Ark shines up the pulpy conventions of old-school serials with wit, aplomb, and non-stop derring-do. The glee in watching Lucas and Spielberg's pop-culture-fizz today is to marvel at the state of the art, pre-CGI. Indy outruns boulders. Indy drags himself beneath speeding trucks. Indy beats up big bad guys and blows up airplanes. And it’s all real. Raiders moves at the speed of a bullet. It has the earthy look of a late-era ‘70s flick, which gives it a timeless feel, but is imbued with the kind of high-falutin' technical know-how only Hollywood titans like Lucas and Spielberg could command. It was the rare instant-event picture that delivered the goods.
Most critics carped that the first follow-up, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was the most violent of the trilogy (it was responsible for the addition of PG-13 to the MPAA rating scale), but the bloodletting in Raiders can be far more disturbing. It’s straightforward, realistic tone and Indy's seemingly utter disregard for human life - no one in this movie seems to bat an eye while wasting people left and right, not to mention burning, maiming, crushing, or rolling over them - gives it a nasty residue lacking in the far more absurd Temple of Doom despite the outrageous ripping out of a human heart. Some levity and romantic interest add the sparks that Indy gets to generate with the best and most underutilized actress of the trilogy. Karen Allen's spunky, tough-talkin' and beer-slingin' Marion Ravenwood is cut from the same cloth as the best old Hollywood heroines. It’s too bad that by the film's last act her role largely turns from proactive to reactive. Dragged idly along as Indy gets to do all the fun stuff, she should have been his equal, not his sidekick. And the film's villain, Belloq (Paul Freeman) is a bit too bland to be truly memorable. But no matter. Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of the best adventures of its kind ever made.
By the time Indy set out for the Temple of Doom in 1984, anticipation was at an all-time high for the further adventures of Dr. Jones. But many audiences and most critics left shell-shocked for all the wrong reasons. Attacked for its over-the-top, often grotesque imagery and graphic violence - a heart gets ripped out of a body, victims are dropped into flaming pits of lava, and let’s not forget that dessert of chilled monkey brains - Temple of Doom was still another huge hit but gave new meaning to the term "box office gross."
Let me risk my membership to the Indy fan club by saying that Temple of Doom remains my favorite of the trilogy. The plot may just be an excuse to stage a relentless and seemingly unending series of action sequences, cliffhangers, and outrageous stunts, but what an amazing rush! Temple of Doom may contain the most extended climax in motion picture history. It just keeps going and going and going, from mine car to conveyor belt to a vertigo-inducing, edge-of-your-seat broken bridge. You can't walk out of Temple of Doom without feeling a bit breathless and thoroughly wrung out.
The complaints about the violence in Temple of Doom seem a little melodramatic in retrospective. The dark, dark imagery is admittedly intense but so outlandish and EC Comics-inspired that it is hard to comprehend what all the fuss was about. Others were offended by the film's alleged racial stereotypes, although the simple caricatures are no worse than anything in Raiders. The Indy films have always been based on old-school clichés and archetypes. And the lack of any really strong human element in Temple of Doom does leave the film open to the legitimate criticism of being just another empty-headed thrill ride. But we don't go on a rollercoaster for depth; we go just for fun.
In crafting 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg and Lucas took the criticisms leveled at Temple of Doom seriously and retreated to the safe and familiar. Harking back to the style and tone of Raiders, Last Crusade still feels a little warmed-over. To recapture the freshness and inventiveness of the original would be impossible, so Last Crusade doesn't try all that hard. But in a stroke of brilliance, Spielberg and Lucas cast Sean Connery as Indy's father, giving the film an emotional heft lacking in the previous two entries and also slyly acknowledging the trilogy's debt to James Bond. Connery is appropriately curmudgeonly, and his vocal sparring with Ford, whether chastising him for taking the lord's name in vain or admitting to sharing the bed of the same woman, is inspired and witty. The father/son dynamic breathes new life into what would otherwise be a fairly ordinary quest that bears too marked of a similarity to the hunt for the Ark in Raiders.
But what it lacks in freshness, Last Crusade more than makes up for in the pleasure of sheer familiarity. Although the weight of carrying on the series' much-beloved traditions began to feel like too much of an obligation - this time its rats, not snakes or bugs, and the recycled Nazis of Raiders are uninspired - it is also like slipping back into a well-worn pair of old shoes. Watching Ford saddle back up with his fedora and bullwhip, or the way Spielberg recalls Raiders' seminal truck chase by restaging it in a tank, is a thrill. And the bravura opening with the late River Phoenix as a young Indy is perfect.
What is patently imperfect is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy's fourth adventure that is bundled in with this edition. It's not a terrible movie - who can resist the dream team of Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford? And when he first puts that fedora on... - but Shia LeBeouf comes patently close to ruining the thing altogether, and not even a game Cate Blanchett can salvage the story's alien-saga narrative stupidity. Is it fun to have Jones around again? Sure. But after the loveliness of Last Crusade's finale, this one feels like a jagged, undeserving coda.