Review: Goin’ back to ‘Indiana’

For a generation weaned on the strange, playfully inventive exploits of Indiana Jones, the resurrection of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s long-dormant franchise inspires feverish excitement and a hint of trepidation. Could lightning strike a fourth time, despite the 19-year layoff since Harrison Ford last donned his well-worn fedora? Or would his legacy be tarnished by a lackluster reprise?

Well, the wait is over, and the results are in: “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is a more than reasonable facsimile of the Indiana Jones adventures that began in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” If it feels a shade less inspired than its epic forebears, that’s to be expected. How many times can Dr. Jones crack the whip and grapple with snakes before déjà vu sets in?

At least once more, from the look of things.

Ford, fit as ever at a Medicare-eligible 65, still exudes the boyish self-confidence that remains Jones’ most enduring quality. If anyone questions his ability to tackle the role he created as much with his unflappable charm as his physical presence, “The Crystal Skull” should put those doubts to rest.

He is joined by one familiar face — Karen Allen, returning to the series for the first time since “Raiders” as Jones’ on-again, off-again love interest — and by newcomer Shia LaBeouf, whose impetuous, greasy-haired sidekick seems more a concession to Ford’s advancing age than a narrative necessity.

Together, they take on an army of Russian mercenaries (led by Cate Blanchett, in full dominatrix mode) on a quest to secure the crystal skulls, alien artifacts whose powers are, in the context of a story every bit as absurd as any other Indiana Jones adventure, utterly baffling.

But that too is to be expected. “The Crystal Skull,” in keeping with the giddy spirit of its predecessors, is highly stylized pulp fiction, complete with flying saucers, flesh-eating ants and physical feats that defy the imagination — none more dazzlingly implausible than Jones’ escape from a nuclear testing facility.

During those moments, when the film indulges its most audacious fantasies, Spielberg’s magic touch is most evident.

The burning question, of course, is whether “The Crystal Skull” lives up to the expectations fostered by “Raiders” and its sequels, the criminally underrated “Temple of Doom” (1984) and 1989’s “Last Crusade.”

It’s a close call. David Koepp’s screenplay, written with sizable contributions from Lucas and “Rush Hour 3” author Jeff Nathanson, is surprisingly flat at times, leaving Ford and company to wrestle with dialogue that feels labored and lacking in rhythm. (Even Blanchett’s villain, whose eyes burn with the promise of unspeakable malice, seems strangely underdeveloped.)

The result is a story imaginative in concept but, in its lesser moments, pedestrian in execution. Still, it’s as good as it needs to be to justify its place in the Indiana Jones canon, and that should be enough for fans of any age.

CREDITS

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (3 stars)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone

Written by David Koepp, George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rated PG-13

Running time 2 hours, 4 minutes

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