20080521-film-0101.jpgPerhaps the defining moment of Indiana Jones lore is the fight that didn’t happen.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a chase in an Egyptian marketplace culminates when a scimitar-wielding ruffian threatens Harrison Ford as the swashbuckling archeologist. After witnessing a display of deadly swordsmanship, Indy famously makes a “whatever” expression and guns down the bad guy. Director Steven Spielberg originally planned a more conventional whip-cracking fight scene, but Ford suffered from food poisoning and had trouble with his stunts, until someone on the crew said “Why doesn’t he just shoot him?”

The gunshot-as-punchline won spontaneous applause when Raiders of the Lost Ark reinforced two of Indy’s salient traits as an atypical action star. Ford made him endearingly vulnerable, registering every body-blow and bump on the road. Plus, his flair for improvisation matched Spielberg and producer George Lucas’s inventive homage to the old serials of the ’30s and ’40s. The filmmakers didn’t just celebrate cheesy cliffhangers, they reinvented them with enough impossible stunts, deadpan jokes and outlandish twists to keep audiences — and probably themselves — constantly amazed.

None of the sequels has enjoyed Raiders’ element of surprise and thrill of discovery, including the new one, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Temple of Doom tried too desperately to out-astonish and out-joke its predecessor. Last Crusade revealed the origins of the hero’s mythos in the “Young Indiana Jones” prologue, then seemed in a rush to send Indy off into the sunset.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull embraces the franchise’s nostalgia for itself even more ardently, but the sentimental streak feels more justifiable given the 19-year interim between chapters. Paradoxically, the film strings together breakneck action sequences yet feels mellow, stately and surprisingly warm. It can’t match the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of Raiders, but Indy’s world fits Spielberg, Lucas and Ford as comfortably as, you know, a battered fedora and a broken-in leather jacket.

Crystal Skull’s footnotes and inside jokes come fast and furious, from the introductory goof on the Paramount logo to John Williams’ rousing score to elaborate salutes to the roles played by Sean Connery and the late Denholm Elliott. In 1957 America, however, the archeology professor finds himself as something of a relic in his own country, at odds with the era’s paranoia over communism and the arms race. In the film’s weirdest sequence, early on Indy finds himself in a mock-up of a 1950s suburb, as if he’s an alien among pastel-colored nuclear families.

The film suggests that America has good reason to fear the Soviets when a team of KGB goons, led by the sadistic Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) shanghai Indy for a murderous mission on a Nevada army base. With her Stalin uniform, shining sword and “moose-and-squirrel” accent, Spalko may be a little too cartoonish as a villain, but Blanchett proves an entertainingly resourceful foil when the bullets, blades and blow-guns start flying. Plus, Spalko’s obsession with a crystal skull as the key to a psychic weapon serves as a fitting metaphor for Communist control over individualism.

Soon enough, the Red Menace content feels more like a red herring. The McCarthy-era themes take a back seat once Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) comes roaring up on a motorcycle like a Marlon Brando wannabe. Mutt enlists Indy to track a missing professor (John Hurt) on a perilous Amazonian treasure hunt. LaBeouf seems an unlikely heir to the franchise, but he makes a great sidekick, huggable and funny without ever upstaging a screen icon like Harrison Ford (or Optimus Prime). When he mentions that he named himself “Mutt,” the script drops a plot-point hint for audiences who remember that Indy named himself “Indiana” after the family dog.

Despite the transfusion of new blood brought by LaBeouf and Blanchett, you suspect that Ford, Lucas and Spielberg take most of their vigor from each other. Ford may be 65, but he gives his friskiest performance in years. When he unexpectedly encounters a long-lost love, or just has a “Eureka!” moment while treasure-hunting, his face lights up and eyes gleam. In the film’s second half he downplays grumpy-old-man shtick for some spritely humor, at one point lecturing on the different varieties of quicksand during the least opportune moment imaginable.

Lucas should never leave home without Spielberg. Where the Star Wars prequels featured stunning computer environments and lifeless, monotonal acting, Spielberg revives the other serial-inspired franchise by keeping the action, locales and acting all in three dimensions. The sets hang with rich, old-fashioned atmosphere, and Spielberg delights in the requisite tomb-raiding puzzles. We sit up in our seats when Indy uses magnetism to track a clue, or tries to outrun booby traps in a ziggurat with giant stone gears at the climax.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t exactly a fresh film adventure. An automotive chase through the jungle throws everything but the kitchen sink at the heroes but feels like an undisguised retread of Raiders’ truck chase. Crystal Skull comes across not as lazy but laid-back, as though the filmmakers have too much confidence to panic about trying to top the earlier films or compete with their younger selves. After 19 years, Indiana Jones suggests that a little wisdom has come with age.

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