Russians. Why'd it have to be Russians?

Probably because it's 1957, the Cold War's in full swing — as is our hero — and Nazis are so yesterday.

It's been almost two decades since "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the last entry in the grandest adventure film series of all time (and one of the richest, with $1.19 billion in the coffers). So expectations have been high for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" — perhaps a tad too high.

The series opened with a bang in 1981 with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a splendid homage to serials from the '30s and '40s. "Raiders" remains the best of the bunch.

In Indy 4, the characters have aged, naturally; there's no Botox here. Harrison Ford's wrinkles, gray hair and orneriness wear well on the weathered professor/archaeologist/adventurer.

"You know, for an old man, you ain't bad in a fight," says young Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), Indy's brash new sidekick. "What are you, like 80?"

Genial age jokes and self-deprecating humor remind you (in case you forgot) that you're here for fun. And, as the movie — which opens in theaters at 12:01 a.m. Thursday — refuses to take itself seriously (one of the series' best qualities), don't nitpick.

Except maybe a little.

Drenched in nostalgia and riddled with splendid stunts, it's the season's second-best popcorn movie. "Iron Man," a more complete film, remains the pick of the blockbuster crop, so far.


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But even with dense chunks of dialogue that drop like cement and a scattershot narrative — all three of its predecessors flowed better — "Skull" still has enough sass to keep you eagerly awaiting the next wave of creepy-crawlies or slithering ick.

Also, Steven Spielberg remains as good at directing action as anyone in the business, and he churns out some dandy sequences here. A multi-car chase through a Peruvian jungle is a doozy.

The new "Indiana" opens like a Sean Connery James Bond film, only with more slapstick. Bond, er, Indy has been captured by Russian Irina Spalko — Cate Blanchett, enjoying herself as a combo Natasha from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" and the assassin with the shoe knife in "From Russia With Love."

The dragon lady and her platoon of Russian soldiers want Indy to locate an item locked in the huge depot that houses the ark from "Raiders" and hordes of other classified paraphernalia. The contents have something to do with Roswell, N.M., and, we soon learn, a lost kingdom of gold, spooky Peruvians and the mystical title skull. I don't want to confuse you; that's the screenwriter's job.

Indy joins the treasure hunt when Mutt tells him his mother's been kidnapped along with a friend of Indy's. The Russians interfere, and the game is afoot.

David Koepp, the umpteenth writer to try his hand at an Indy screenplay over the years, crafted "Crystal Skull" from a story co-written by George Lucas. The script lifts liberally from the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" blueprint, which is a mixed blessing: It adds to the wistfulness but, at the same time, suggests Koepp ("Stir of Echoes," "War of the Worlds") ran out of ideas.

The "Skulls" story is weaker than its predecessors and the storytelling's more ungainly, which may account for the film's rhythm interruptis.

Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's feisty girlfriend and partner in crime in "Raiders," and the most appealing of his female costars. She brings warmth to party but her character bickers more than charms.

LaBeouf, on a roll after "Transformers" and "Disturbia," brings the right demographic to attract people who were in diapers when "Raiders" debuted. I found his punk act grating, especially in the early going, but I took to him by the end because he loosened up a little.

"Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" is a rocky but amusing ride that's well worth a look if you have a jones for Indy. In interviews, Ford's said he's open to doing a fifth "Indiana" film if fans want it. Given how spry he looks here, why not?

Reach Barry Caine at bcaine@bayareanewsgroup.com.

`INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL'
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  • STARRING: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett and Karen Allen
  • DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
  • WHERE: Bay Area-wide
  • RATING: PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images
  • RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 2 minutes