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No kingdom for old men

May 29, 2008
The Maui News
With box-office tallies topping $300 million in the week since it opened, it’s probably safe to say “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is a hit.

Whether that means it’s good depends on who you ask. I’m probably not the best guy for that job since I couldn’t quite follow what was going on when I was watching it, and now I can’t exactly remember the details.

I think it had something to do with buried treasure, apocalyptic fires and biblical floods deep underground beneath a magnificent stone monument … no, wait, maybe that was “National Treasure 2” …

What this new “Indiana Jones” mostly seems to be about is that Harrison Ford is 65 now. Director Steven Spielberg and writer-producer George Lucas are just a few years shy of that marker. Come to think of it, so am I.

Like “Shine a Light,” Martin Scorsese’s glorious Rolling Stones concert film the Maui Film Festival screens next Wednesday in Castle Theater, “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” demonstrates what creative lengths some guys will go to not to act their age.

With Sean Connery in retirement, the writers — led by Lucas — have sent Indy’s dear old dad to the big archaeological dig in the sky. This clears the way for Ford to move to the other side of the father-son equation, with Shia LeBoef in the cast to play his not-totally-surrogate son.

When they’re not teaming up to ward off various baddies with whips, knives, swords, grenades, amphibious landing craft and such, the two engage in the sort of old gramps vs. young whippersnapper banter that basically went out of style in the 1950s.

This is fitting, since the film is set in the 1950s. Whether or not it’s still basically out of style depends on who you ask.

The fact that I can’t recollect exactly how Indiana Jones and his entourage wound up in that stone temple surrounded by restless natives deep in the jungles of Peru (I think it had something to do with a crystal skull), doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the point they started from.

Steven Spielberg gets most of the credit for directing Indy’s great adventures, but I’m more in awe of the imagination of George Lucas for thinking them up. Lucas isn’t content to merely evoke ’50s styles — LeBoef’s character channels James Dean, Marlon Brando and Edd “Kookie” Burns endlessly combing his hair — but remembers the era’s social attitudes and stereotypes, too.

The clever plot serves up Cold War fears in the form of one very slinky Soviet military officer (Cate Blanchett, superb as ever in severe black bangs and dominatrix demeanor.) On our side, we’ve got Indiana Jones under FBI suspicion because he’s one of those egghead college professors. On campus, a war of words rages in slogans like “I Like Ike” and “Better Dead Than Red.”

Leave it to Lucas and Spielberg to work Roswell and extraterrestrials into the plot, and leave it to Karen Allen to basically light up the screen — not to mention, Indiana Jones’ lonely life — with her return.

Ford seemingly can’t decide whether to play the hero or spoof him, but gets away with it either way. He, like much of the movie, is likable enough … but like something familiar rather than new or thrilling.

Cate Blanchett is as good at being campy as she is at being classy, and Karen Allen’s smile ranks among the film’s best special effects. And when it comes to staging sword fights on the back of vehicles careening through the jungle, no one does it better than Steven Spielberg.

It’s just that it feels like deja vu rather than fresh adventure. As though Indy’s most enduring image — of trying to outrun that gigantic boulder — is some kind of metaphor for the mortality pursuing the folks who make the movies … and the folks who watch them. And it’s getting closer.

George Lucas’ greatest legacy may be the way he turned the relationship between movies and marketing upside down. He accidentally discovered that it’s definitely important to advertise your movie — but you make more money if you use the movie to advertise everything else.

I read that Steven Spielberg spent his $300 million opening weekend as “a recluse,” avoiding reading anything critics or anyone else had to say. Seeing the box office figures Monday morning was what he really cared about, he said.

Somehow, after watching the movie, you already knew that.

• Contact Rick Chatenever at


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