Indiana Jones cracks the whip

Ford, Spielberg, Lucas — and dastardly Cate Blanchett.

click to enlarge THAT INDY SPIRIT: Harrison Ford returns as the intrepid archaeologist in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. - Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
THAT INDY SPIRIT: Harrison Ford returns as the intrepid archaeologist in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

"This isn't going to be easy," mutters a character hoping to escape certain doom at the outset of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. "Not as easy as it used to be," affirms his comrade-in-peril, Indiana Jones himself — words that clearly apply not just to the predicament at hand but to the larger task of resuscitating a franchise last seen nearly two decades ago and starring a faded action hero whose age now appears to be, as estimated by one of Indy's newer acquaintances, "like, 80."

And yet, against these odds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull succeeds. What director Steven Spielberg and Prime Mover George Lucas have come up with here is a surprisingly satisfying return to form, an old-fashioned adventure yarn so expertly crafted and consistently entertaining we barely have a moment to consider all those empty calories until the movie is nearly over.

Big cheeses Spielberg and Lucas and screenwriter David Koepp have wisely acknowledged the passage of time without changing the series' basic attitude, setting Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the Cold War year of 1957, exactly 19 years after the last installment took place, thereby allowing their eponymous hero to age, if not exactly gracefully, at least naturally. Wrinkled and graying but still iconic under that familiar fedora, Ford's middle-aged Indy comes across much as an aging Humphrey Bogart (circa The African Queen) might have played him, appealingly grizzled and hard-boiled. Old Indy prefers delivering a droll quip to physically battling his way out of a tight jam, but he's equally adept at both.

Every Indiana Jones movie needs its MacGuffin, and the one here is the titular skull, an all-powerful artifact leading to a mythical lost city, and pursued by Indy, his young pal Mutt (Shia LeBeouf) and squads of hostile Russian agents (standing in for Raiders of the Lost Ark's Nazis) led by a dastardly superwoman (Cate Blanchett). Along the way, there's plenty of the series' patented blend of action, comedy, pulp adventure, fantasy and, yes, snakes.

The movie barrels along, delivering what is essentially one super-charged set piece after another, sequences all the more remarkable for largely avoiding CGI and relying on such proudly old-school building blocks as skillful, intricately orchestrated stunts and a well-placed camera.

It's a perpetual motion machine as impressive as something like, say, Speed Racer, but infinitely closer to the natural charms of Buster Keaton (or Jackie Chan doing Buster Keaton) than to the vacuum-packed, post-Matrix shenanigans of the Wachowski Brothers. Indy's opening 20 minutes alone — a thrilling, one-damn-thing-after-another culminating in nothing less spectacular than an atomic bomb blast and our hero's iconic silhouette dwarfed by a mushroom cloud — is worth a dozen Speed Racers.

What computerized trickery is used is generally so seamlessly integrated into the action that we barely notice it, a quietly phenomenal achievement in itself. The one notable exception is the movie's finale, a lazily conceptualized mish-mash of digital explosions, big-eyed aliens and other visual and narrative elements re-hashed from numerous earlier Spielberg productions. It's an unbecoming send-off for a movie that for the most part manages to remain faithful to a formula while revitalizing itself through sheer energy and imagination.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (PG-13) Stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Shia LeBeouf, Cate Blanchette and Jim Broadbent. Opens May 22 at local theaters. 3.5 stars

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