Some things are different. No more Nazis — it is now a Cold War and the guys on the other side are the Soviets. And there may be enemies at home. A harmless-looking professor could be a Red. Or maybe it is the agents of the U.S. government who are the bad guys when they see enemies who are not there. And teenagers are acting wild. Some of them speed by in jalopies and some of them slick back their hair, drop out of school, and ride motorcycles.
But some things are the same. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, for the fourth time) still packs a mean punch and carries a bull whip. He still has a way of getting himself into and out of trouble. He still hates snakes. And he is still a lot of fun to watch.
As always, we start right in the midst of the action. A motorcade of soldiers is approaching a “Hanger 51” Army base in Nevada that is shut down for a test of an atomic bomb. But it turns out not to be what it seems. They are Soviet spies and they want Indiana to find something in storage there (Indy fans will enjoy seeing a familiar item in one of the crates). This time, the artifact everyone wants is a crystal skull from South America that, according to legend, will grant great power to whomever returns it to its home. The Soviets are led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, severe in an impeccable uniform and a ruthlessly aerodynamic bob), a specialist in the paranormal.
Instead of being congratulated for escaping from the Soviets, Indy becomes a “person of interest” to the FBI due to “this charged climate” and is suspended from his job. When he gets a message from a young man on a motorcycle who looks like he just rode in from the set of “The Wild One” that his old friend Professor Oxley (John Hurt) has been captured, Indy and the young man (“Transformers'” Shia LeBeouf) set out to rescue them.
Ford brings it. He is vitally and vibrantly present every moment on screen. He gets the a-word issue out of the way early on with a wry response to “we’ve gotten out of worse before” — “We were younger then.” He can still throw a credible punch and he has an even better and deeper sense of who he is as an actor and who Indy is as a character dealing with his own issues of aging. Moving the characters forward in time provides many opportunities for fresh and intriguing details that are instantly evocative of the past and lightly resonant for today’s circumstances as well. LeBeouf, Ford, and Karen Allen, who makes a welcome return as Marian, Indy’s best leading lady, have terrific chemistry. The stunts are thrilling and brilliantly paced, and the script, the first three-quarters of it, anyway, if not up to the level of the first Indiana Jones film, is at or better than the other two. The old-school effects are far better than the brief CGI. The unscripted real-life bug swallowed as an ad lib by Rene Belloq in the first movie was far more effective than an army of man-eating ants made from pixels in this one. John Hurt is underused as the addled Oxley as is Ray Winstone (“Beowulf”) as a fellow traveler in more than one sense of the term. And it is a little too long, but that is understandable. Ford, Allen, producer George Lucas, and director Steven Spielberg enjoy spending time with Indiana Jones and don’t want to say goodbye. We feel the same way.