I took the kids Saturday to see the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and I must say, it exceeded my expectations, which I had worked to keep modest. You have to remember that the original Indiana Jones movies were not such film legends because they were compelling human drama or fantastically realistic; rather, they succeeded because they offered three things:
1. A classic action hero (I know I was a minority in enjoying Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but the film was nonetheless a vivid reminder of how much a film like that loses when it has a bland hero instead of a charismatic swashbuckler);
2. Non-stop action that keeps you on the edge of your seat too consistently to allow for reflection on the amount of disbelief you have to suspend; and
3. A tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the fact that this is a movie; they were supposed to be a fun throwback to the action films of the 30s and 40s, and all three of the originals had their share of explicit winks to film convention or homages to specific films of old.
I was reminded of this by recently re-watching them. All three are still a lot of fun, but there’s still plenty that’s outright preposterous, from the action sequences to the romantic dialogue to the ‘monologuing’ villains to the inevitable deus ex machina supernatural ending. Temple of Doom, which may have been my favorite of the three when I saw it in the theater as a young teenager, has undoubtedly aged the worst and/or holds up the worst when watched as an adult (it’s also the most politically incorrect of the three), although the opening action sequence remains a classic.
On to the new installment (a few very mild spoilers, but the main spoilers will be below the fold). First of all, Harrison Ford’s still got it. He looks great for his age, but he definitely looks his age (65); he basically defines “grizzled” at this point. And he’s still got some of the old charm, much moreseo than in interviews with the real Ford, who has been a crusty old man for years now. That said, Indy comes off as more serious and sober now, which is inevitable with the passage of years (we’re reminded early on that Indy’s father has died – Sean Connery chose not to return for the film – as has Indy’s professorial colleague Marcus Brody, played by the late Denholm Elliott; John Rhys-Davies’ absence is not explained, and mercifully Short Round does not turn up). We are definitely given to believe that in the years between 1939 and 1957, treasure hunting and womanizing have had to take a back seat to the grim business of defending the free world from Nazis and Communists, a reality that’s consistent not only with the world’s history at that time but with why Lucas and Spielberg originally set the first three films before the outbreak of world war, when it was still possible for an American rogue to travel the world and fight the bad guys without a lot of friendly military help or polarized local resistance. Indy by now, like Han Solo in the later Star Wars flicks, has largely been absorbed into the chain of command. In fact, an early plotline about Indy being the victim of a sort of McCarthyism (in today’s Hollywood, you can’t have Commie bad guys without a little McCarthyism, even as late as 1957) serves mostly to ensure that Indy can function once again as a free agent.
The second really crucial decision was bringing back Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood to be Indy’s love interest rather than pair up Ford with some young starlet. Not only does this spare us the spectacle of a woman in her twenties or thirties falling for a guy twice her age, but by bringing back the best of Indy’s old flames, we get to skip almost entirely over the whole process of flirtation and courtship, which almost invariably goes down badly in a George Lucas film, and stick to the action. When you see Indy and Marion together, you don’t need to be sold on their immediate attraction; it’s baked into the characters and our history with them. And the 56-year-old Allen is still appealing, even cute if you can apply that word to a woman her age who – like Ford – definitely looks her age.
The movie has plenty of fun action sequences, my favorite being a lengthy, rollicking chase sequence in the Peruvian jungle that borrows very liberally from the speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi and features the meanest ants since Them. Early on, we also get to see Indy one-up Jack Bauer by surviving the shockwave from a nuclear blast, which is amusingly ludicrous.
Lucas and Spielberg, as children of the 50s (in Lucas’ case, also a veteran of the first wave of 50s nostalgia with American Graffiti), lovingly slather on every detail, both realistic and cliched, to evoke the time period, from Elvis to malt-shop bobby-soxers to “I Like Ike” to the Red Scare. There are more than a few obvious tips of the hat (some literal, some figurative) to the prior movies as well as to other films. The most obvious is when Shia Lebeouf, with his hair compulsively slicked back to look like a ringer for James Dean, makes his first appearance dressed exactly like Marlon Brando in The Wild One:
More spoilers below
Of course, the ultimate homage is the way the movie’s ending apes Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from the look of the aliens to the flying saucer. On the whole, the alien bit was hokey but necessary; the decision to have Indy marry Marion at the end was more in the nature of a forced sentimental sendoff (I assume there won’t be a fifth film), with the line at the end about so much being lost in the waiting an obvious nod to the audience at how long it took to get this one to screen. And as for the nuclear blast scene, I still came away thinking that lead-lined refrigerator or no, Indy’s gonna have one nasty case of radiation poisoning.
Some of the other cliches were insanely predictable: of course, as in Raiders and Last Crusade, we get villains undone by their lust for knowledge and power flowing from the supernatural, and of course, as in Last Crusade, we also see a double agent refuse Indy’s hand in the collapsing temple out of a lust for treasure.
Anyway, on the whole, despite some of the quibbles, the movie was a lot of fun, and well worth the price of admission.