CANNES, FRANCE — It's the summer's most anticipated film, the latest in a beloved series that's earned $1.2 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Add in a premiere at the most prestigious of international film festivals, and the wonder of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is that it avoids being an anticlimax and is entertaining in its own right.
Though the film stars a relaxed and capable Harrison Ford as everyone's favorite intrepid archaeologist and boasts supporting players ranging from Cate Blanchett as a superb villainess to Shia LaBeouf as the inevitable youngster, the real heroes of this film are director Steven Spielberg and the veritable army of superb technicians who turn the film's numerous stunts and special effects into trains that insist on running on time.
Trains are in fact not a bad metaphor for the director's motivations for this fourth Indy effort, the first in 19 years. Just like a model-train hobbyist who enjoys getting more and more expensive equipment as his income level rises, Spielberg clearly got enormous pleasure employing a lifetime's worth of skill and turning out wave after wave of smartly done stunts and effects set pieces.
Certainly "Crystal Skull," which hits theaters in the U.S. this Thursday, couldn't have had a more eager, not to say rabid, audience anywhere in the world than the one at the Cannes Film Festival for its pair of Sunday screenings. The chaos at the press entrance was remarkable at the first screening, with frantic cinephiles pushing, shoving, attempting to jump over barriers and engaging in fierce shouting matches with the guards. And inside the normally decorous Grand Theatre Lumiere, where the festival's closing ceremony is held, there was unprecedented cheering as the opening credits rolled.
Getting sole screenplay credit (with story credit going to series originator George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) was the veteran David Koepp, the latest and most successful of the close to a dozen people who took a crack at this project over 15 years, according to an article in the WGA's Written By magazine. The result may not be as iconic as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but it's a perfectly agreeable outline on which to hang what, with a budget estimated at $185 million, must be the most expensive Saturday matinee film ever made.
Koepp's script also had to get the approval of Harrison Ford, who probably enjoyed getting to play his own age in a story set at the height of the Red scare in 1957, when Marshall College's Professor Jones, believe it or not, runs afoul of the FBI and has his patriotism questioned. Though perhaps ambivalent at one time about Indy typecasting, Ford has made his peace with one of his most iconic roles and seeing him at his ease here is like meeting an old friend after years away.
If Ford is a known Indy quantity, newcomer Blanchett is a great treat as Colonel Professor Irina Spalko, three-time winner of the Order of Lenin and "Stalin's fair-haired girl" despite a jet-black hairdo a la Louise Brooks.
The Colonel Professor and a crack team of Russians manage to force their way into a secret U.S. Army base in Nevada as the film begins. They bring the kidnapped Jones with them and force him at gunpoint to help them find some mummified remains from a plane crash that are stored in a giant government warehouse, the same one, incidentally, that was featured in the ending of "Raiders." (Here it's built for real; in the original it was a special effect).
The mummified remains have a connection to the crystal skull of the title, and both deeply interest the C.P., who is a believer in paranormal research as "a new frontier in psychic warfare." She feels if she can find where the skull came from, great knowledge will be hers.
Naturally, the temple turns out to be deep in the South American jungle and, no surprise here, not at all easy to get to.
If the opening Nevada segment, which quite literally ends with a bang, complete with realistic mushroom cloud, is one of the film's strengths, the exposition-heavy middle section is something of a drag. That's partially because Indy's sidekicks, including Ray Winstone as George "Mac" MacHale and John Hurt as Professor "Ox" Oxley (you may detect a pattern here) are no better than serviceable.
That is true as well for LaBeouf as youth interest Mutt Williams. Introduced as a total copy of Marlon Brando on a motorcycle in "The Wild One," LaBeouf doesn't seem completely comfortable in his disaffected teen role, a part that does not play to the innate likability that is one of his strengths.
And though it is exceptionally pleasant to see Karen Allen returning as Indy flame Marion Ravenwood, the film is too intent on spending the first part of their reunion having them strenuously argue with each other. It's so unpleasant, even one of the atheist Russians is forced to plead, "For love of God, shut the hell up."