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Movie Review: Racing Around the World with INDIANA JONES: THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES

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People forget that when Steven Spielberg unleashed Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, he was coming out of a massive slump.  It’s hard to believe that Hollywood’s favorite wunderkind ever tasted anything other than Success’ sweet nectar, but so is the power of his WWII comedy 1941; that film belly-flopped so hard after its 1979 premiere that audiences and critics began to suspect that Spielberg’s Midas Touch might be malfunctioning.  Suddenly, Spielberg was persona non grata, leaving him with a near-impossible challenge.  Whatever he did next couldn’t be just good – it had to be phenomenal, lest he never regain his former stature.

Mission accomplished.  Know how I know that?  I can guarantee that if you’re reading this, you love Raiders of the Lost Ark.  You don’t tolerate it; you don’t enjoy parts here and there.  You love it, and you always will.

And really, who can blame you (us)?  Raiders works as both the single-greatest parody of pulp adventures ever made and the greatest pulp adventure ever made.  Every stunt comes with a nod and a wink; screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan fills the picture with ironic asides, whether it’s John Rhys-Davies’ marvelously self-aware Sallah or the cheerfully preposterous importance behind the film’s MacGuffin – the Ark of the Covenant – or the litany of great one-liners Kasdan gives his hero, the crusading archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).  “Snakes.  Why’d it have to be snakes?”  “It’s not the years, honey; it’s the mileage.”  “I don’t know – I’m making this up as I go.”

Raiders never stops nudging you in the ribs, even as it makes you chew your nails to the nubs when Indiana finds himself outrunning a hostile Indian tribe or chasing a Nazi agent through an Egyptian bazaar or trying like hell – in the film’s brilliant chase sequence – to steal the Ark from a moving Nazi transport.  The movie stops moving exactly twice – once to setup the Ark, and once to let Indy and his Girl Friday (Karen Allen) regroup after escaping Egypt – and we don’t mind the let-up since it gives us a minute to catch our breath.  It’s a rocket of a film, this Raiders of the Lost Ark, and we can’t wait to jump back on after it’s over.

The best thing one can say about its 1984 follow-up Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is that Temple of Doom maintains that lunatic pace.  Beginning with its opening scene, a splashy musical number that quickly turns into a shootout and car chase through the streets of Shanghai, Temple of Doom zooms from one catastrophe to the next; we barely have time to get our bearings before the movie has raced to the climax, a vertiginous showdown between Indy and the Thuggee blood cult on a very rickety wooden bridge.  However, the title change is apt – this is a darker, more ominous thrill-ride, with Indy’s frightening trek through the inner workings of the Thuggees’ inner sanctum taking on the texture of a nightmare.  Despite the film’s violent reputation, Temple of Doom is actually no more graphic than Raiders; you show me the grisly, heart-ripping way the Thuggees honor their gods, and I’ll raise you the graphic bullet-hits and face-meltings saturating Raiders in gore.  The difference is, Spielberg and Slocombe shoot Temple of Doom like a horror movie, with inky blacks and hellish reds, and they show no qualms whatsoever about putting children in particular danger.  It feels nastier, and while I enjoy the darkness that Temple of Doom serves up, it does lack Raiders‘ breezy charm.

Also lacking: a healthy dose of cultural sensitivity.  In its racial and gender attitudes, Temple of Doom is a huge step back.  For our love interest, we go from Karen Allen’s spirited Marion Ravenwood to Kate Capshaw’s materialistic, shrill Willie Scott, and the change hurts.  No offense to the then-future Mrs. Steven Spielberg, but Capshaw’s work is so whiny and unappealing you wonder why Indy doesn’t just leave her to die somewhere in the jungle (and the permanent scowl on Ford’s face during their “love” scenes suggests he’s thinking the same thing).  And our villains also unnerve for all the wrong reasons – as scary as they are (and Amrish Puri’s Mola Ram casts a genuinely terrifying figure), the Thuggees are unpleasant Indian stereotypes that were racist when George Stevens used them in his 1939 action epic Gunga Din and are no less racially insensitive here.  That’s why Nazis were such a great Big Bad choice for the first movie; it’s never not okay to hate them.

The Nazis return for the third Indiana Jones adventure, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and they’re not the only part of Last Crusade that echoes Raiders; after Temple of Doom‘s gloom and menace, Last Crusade plays like a calculated effort to reclaim Raiders‘ fun.  Besides bringing back the eminently loath-worthy Nazis, we get both Denholm Elliott (as Indy’s mentor, Marcus Brody) and Rhys-Davies as Indy’s bumbling sidekicks; wide-open and spacious Middle Eastern-locales that host mostly blood-free action sequences (including a finale set in Petra); and a central MacGuffin that carries the same mystical weight as the Ark of the Covenant as opposed to Temple of Doom‘s ill-defined runestones: this time, Indy is after the Holy F**king Grail.  Problem is, it’s too calculated – for the first hour, you can sense Spielberg walking on eggshells, trying his damndest not to offend anyone, and his restraint renders so much of the opening half flat and lifeless.  There’s a drab trek through Venice’s sewers, a drab storming of a Nazi castle, and a drab motorboat chase that manages to turn the full-scale disintegration of boat by giant propeller into a colorless, wan affair.  Spielberg pulls off one iconic sequence – the opening ten minutes, which show the adventures of a teenage Indiana Jones (winningly played by the late, great River Phoenix), are as exciting as anything in Raiders – but other than that, it’s forty miles of bad road, and some of the least inspired filmmaking the director has ever produced.

And then Sean Connery enters the picture, and Last Crusade gets deliriously entertaining.

His turn as Indy’s father Henry remains the best performance in the Indiana Jones series.  It’s a wonderful mix of tones – Connery gives you that patented James Bond sex appeal and charm, but he’s also unassuming and nerdy enough that you immediately buy him as a scholar of international repute (his bald and bespectacled appearance is remarkably vanity-free, as is the way he and Elliott geek out about Greek and Latin when they’re being held hostage inside a Nazi tank).  More importantly, once Henry Jones shows up, Last Crusade develops real emotional stakes – every exchange within the family Jones has a palpable undercurrent of pain.  For all his brilliance, Henry Jones could never muster enough interest in the whole parenting thing, and his forty-some years of fatherly neglect have left Indy bitter and unhappy.  To be sure, we’re getting a dose of Spielberg’s standard Daddy-issues, but Tom Stoppard’s droll, sharp script contributions and the flinty interplay between Connery and Ford work overtime to strip the sentimentality out of this maudlin setup.  The action scenes in the second half hold our interest, too – a tank/horse showdown is particularly cool – though it’s the last shot I’ll always remember, as Dr. Jones and his son ride off into the sunset together, united (if only briefly) against the great unknown.

More than anything, I wish that final shot could have been the Indiana Jones series’ parting glance, an exciting, oddly poetic ode to adventures past and future, but we lost that dignified finish when Spielberg and Co. released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008.  To call Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the worst film in the franchise is an understatement; it is, point blank, the worst film Steven Spielberg has ever directed.  How bad is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?  Put it like this: human douche nozzle Shia LaBeouf gets way too much screen-time as Indy’s estranged son, and he isn’t even close to being the worst thing in the movie.

That’d be Harrison Ford, whose logy, underwhelming Indy turn suggests he delivered all his dialogue in the afterglow of an unsatisfying nap.  No, wait; it’d be Janusz Kaminski’s bright, fake-looking cinematography, which makes even the location footage (some gorgeous temples in Hawaii) resemble badly green-screened backdrops.  Scratch that: it’d be the Frankenstein-engineered script, cobbled together from years of drafts by otherwise talented fellows like David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, Jeb Stuart, and Frank Darabont, a script that introduces half a dozen major plot threads and does almost nothing with most of them.  Or maybe it’s the lame mystery that looks to the sky for inspiration and is all the worse for it.  Or the big jungle action scene, with its lack of tension and interludes from CGI monkeys and ants.  Or how it wastes Ray Winstone.  And John Hurt.  And Jim Broadbent.  And Karen Allen.  And (this hurts to write) Cate Blanchett, whose Russian villainess has almost no discernable impact on the narrative.

I can’t say that nothing works.  The opening action setpiece in Area 51 is exciting and crisply edited, fridge-nuking and all, and there’s also a practically achieved car chase in and around Yale University that gets the blood pumping for four whole minutes.  It’s a testament to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s unholy badness, however, that these genuine highlights come off as blips in an otherwise dire accident.  I mean, this is a major summer blockbuster that is far too content with having its heroes just watch stuff happen; the last thirty minutes find Ford and LaBeouf literally gazing at unconvincing CGI instead of, y’know, fighting and running and doing all the things we like our protagonists to do in these kinds of movies.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the franchise film as vestigial limb, unnecessary and vaguely unseemly, and I suggest you treat it as such.  When you get this Blu-ray set, throw away the disc (or, if nothing else, treat it like the world’s most expensive fanfic film).  Don’t just rely on your memories of Indiana Jones 1 – 3 to get you through Part Four – take action.  The franchise is too good, too enduring, to let a little piece of trash ruin its whole legacy.

The Blu-ray certainly helps.  Raiders recently received a gorgeous, frame-by-frame restoration, and the results are glorious: shimmering and textured without looking flat.  While Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade didn’t get the same care, they weren’t in such dire need, and the color correction work makes them look as good as Raiders.  Each film also gets a bombastic and immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Note: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks and sounds horrible because it’s a horrible movie.

Supplements are extensive.  The four movies take up the first four discs, and their respective trailers/teasers accompany them.  Disc five is devoted to special features, which include the hour-long On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark retrospective documentary; five in-depth behind-the-scenes documentaries (two for Raiders, and one for the rest); and twelve behind-the-scenes featurettes covering everything from the series that the six previous features couldn’t cover.

It’s an agreeably expansive package for what is the great American adventure series.  Ignore part four: like Belloq tells Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is history, and we are all richer for it.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures streets on September 18th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.