Friday, May 23, 2008

Thy 'Kingdom' comes ... at long last

This year's megablockbuster (deep breath) "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is not in the same class as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- but then, what is? -- yet it ably accomplishes its mission: Two hours of fun entertainment. It doesn't take itself too seriously (there are several "are you kidding me?" moments, mostly involving prairie dogs, monkeys, snakes, and Cate Blanchett) so neither should anyone else. Critical reactions have been highly mixed, but I think the Globe's Ty Burr is spot on. (If your idea of a good time at the movies is something in Farsi with subtitles, you'll want to skip this one.)

The film is a great reminder that nobody, but nobody, can direct an action set piece like Spielberg. In most blockbusters, frenetic action scenes rely on so much quick-cut editing that it's hard to get more than an impression of what's happening on screen. (Culprits include "Spider-Man III" and "Alien vs. Predator".) But Spielberg uses long takes as the camera smoothly takes in all the mayhem. It's great to see a summer blockbuster that spends more of its budget on fake cobwebs than CGI effects. That also means real stunts. There are a couple of great action sequences where you can tell that the stuntman took the day off so that Harrison Ford could test the limits of his insurance policy.

I loved how the first half of the movie has fun with the tropes of 1950s sci-fi films as well as the culture of that decade itself. It's the freshest part of the film. After that, the film lapses into the standard Indiana Jones formula and some unfortunate expository dialogue. Thankfully, the David Koepp script has some great one-liners, too. But once Indy races the Russians through the jungles of South America, the film almost manages to surpass its great opening sequence.

I do miss the real danger and unsettling suspense of the first two Indiana Jones films, though. I actually liked the heart-plucking scenes in "The Temple of Doom," which scared the bejeesus out of me as a kid. It raised the stakes for the hero, an imperative that's missing here. That said, the aging hero does come across a colony in the jungle so frightening that thousands of people will immediately cancel their holiday trips to the Amazon. And I'm not referring to restless natives, though they're present, too.

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