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Losing Sight of the Reasons for Success Film makers sometimes have blind spots when they seek to capitalize on an earlier movie

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

May 28, 1989|SHEILA BENSON

Something seems to go a little haywire when film makers return to successes of the past, in proper sequels such as "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" or decidedly improper affairs such as "Road House." It has no relation whatever to "Dirty Dancing," but the makers of "Road House" seem to hope that the presence of Patrick Swayze will deliver the "Dirty Dancing" audience--although they haven't a clue as to where that movie's charm lay.

Mainly, film makers seem to lose track of what made us love the original movie in the first place. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a super piece of comedy-adventure for reasons of production, charisma, casting, audacity, timing, charm and that keystone of all solid projects, a marvelous script.

In his screenplay for "Raiders," Lawrence Kasdan had the burden--and the freedom--of introducing fresh characters, of setting their personality quirks, their strengths, their weaknesses, their trademarks. He reached some kind of peak with both Indy himself and his full partner in adventure, Marion Ravenwood.

Indiana Jones was funny and, if he had to be, brave, but the emphasis was comfortably on the funny. Hard to forget that joke of the enormous villain in the streets of Cairo, elaborately tossing his scimitar from hand to hand; Indy quite suddenly dispatched him with a revolver, not some dumb, man-to-man, \o7 hurtful\f7 duel that was clearly in the making.

Indiana wasn't so ironclad that he walked away from beatings unscathed, and although Ford was sexy enough to become a magnet for women of every age, Indiana wasn't so aggressively so that he led the younger kids in the audience into the Valley of Grown-Up Stuff, where young boys in particular are sensitive to feeling overmatched, or, worse, unknowing.

Indy and Ford became a fusion of character and actor in the great Bond/Connery mold. Then Kasdan outdid himself as he sketched Marion Ravenwood and Steven Spielberg accentuated the wit of the writing with his use of Karen Allen in the role. Clearly, Marion was a match for Indy; she was a dame you could take anywhere and at the same time so intrinsically classy that she was never hampered with having to behave like a lady.

She could drink strong men under the table, run a machine gun or a thieves den of a bar in Nepal; she was someone you could leave in the dark with a carpet of snakes and know that, if she wasn't exactly happy, she wouldn't scream the place down. Karen Allen was all the reasons that Kate Capshaw in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" seemed even more of a shrilling ninny. In comparison with Capshaw, Olive Oyl was restful, low key, feminine. Also, Marion knew Indy inside and out and from way back; back, in fact, to the time 10 years ago when he broke her teen-age heart. It was a meticulously balanced pairing.

"Raiders" certainly had state-of-the-art chases; its stunt of passing Indy under a speeding truck and then dragging him behind it, clinging on by his trademark bullwhip, was the equal of every classic four- and eight-horse stagecoach stop that used to make kids' jaws drop in Saturday matinee Westerns. But you'd be selling a deft, many-layered film short to think that "Raiders' " reputation came from its chases. It came from character, from throwaway humor and from our delight in Indiana's inventiveness. There is some of that here in "The Last Crusade." But not nearly enough.

Well, sequels must be allowed to grow, to breathe and to wander in slightly different directions. The notion of pairing Indy with his estranged father is a promising one, made rich by the choice of Sean Connery as Prof. Henry Jones, a medieval scholar. With Connery's entrance, roughly 45 minutes into the action, the screen finally crackles to life. And he certainly puts Ford on his mettle, working to keep the picture from being pulled right out from under him.

But before we meet Jones Sr., the movie has been one chase, one gasp-maker after another. And ironically, it's Spielberg himself who may have given us our fill of the hair's-breath pursuit, with more than a little help from George Lucas, the series' progenitor/co-producer. We do get a prologue with River Phoenix as the young Indy, letting us see for ourselves where he got his hat, his bullwhip, his scarred chin and his archeological leanings. But it's a complete waste of Phoenix to careen him breathlessly from stunt to stunt. And the "payoff" that follows as we segue to the adult Indiana is no payoff at all, just a sort of veriform appendix to the plot.

As father and son effect a reconciliation and go together on a search for the elder Jones' obsession, the resting place of the Holy Grail, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam has some moments of inventiveness, like Prof. Jones' thoughtful use of his umbrella at one point, but the film needs a half-dozen more such character-inspired gags, minimum.

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