"What are you, like, 80?" a brash young man asks the intrepid archaeologist Dr. Henry Jones Jr. in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It's as if the kid were reading the audience's mind. Harrison Ford doesn't look bad for his age - we should all be as fit at 65 - but he does seem awfully old when he dons Indy's trademark fedora and flashes his I'll-get-out-of-this-somehow smirk. Indiana Jones is not supposed to be this jowly, this gray. It's a little discomfiting, seeing our heroes turn into relics before our eyes.
That was an inevitable consequence of waiting nearly 20 years to crank out another Indiana Jones adventure. Ford, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas have been promising to return to the popular franchise for the past two decades, but it took that long for someone to come up with a script they could all get excited about.
In hindsight, the delay is baffling, since the plot of Crystal Skull - the script was written by frequent Spielberg collaborator David Koepp (War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park), based on a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson - is easily its weakest element.
Set in 1957, the era of the Cold War, the Red Scare and A-bomb testing, Crystal Skull steers the franchise away from the fantasy genre and into science-fiction territory. It's not a coincidence that the terms "Area 51" and "Roswell" are glimpsed during the stupendous 20-minute sequence that opens the film.
Unfortunately, that opening - which includes our introduction to Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the icy Soviet agent who wants to unlock the secrets of the titular artifact and use them to rule the world - turns out to be the high point of the movie. The script was kept under unusually tight wraps during filming, but the biggest surprise in Crystal Skull is how talky the whole enterprise is. Particularly deadly is a long stretch in mid-film where the heroes walk through caves, talk about what they're seeing, get captured and talk with their captors, escape and talk some more.
Supporting characters such as Indy's new sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone), who may or may not be a double agent for the Russkies, and Professor Oxley (John Hurt), an old friend who has spent a little too much time in proximity of the skull, have little to do other than serve as expository devices (Hurt in particular is wasted; you could cut his character right out of the movie and the story wouldn't change a bit). Even Blanchett turns out to be a disappointing villain: She's all evil stares, with little bite, and that vague dominatrix vibe she emits from her first scene goes unexplored.
Karen Allen fares a bit better as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's squeeze from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who returns with some huge news for the hero. Allen, too, is used mostly to deliver information, but the sight of her huge grin is an instant pleasure for anyone with fond memories of the first film. She also shares a scene with Ford, in which their characters are sinking in quicksand, that conjures up the spirit of The African Queen. But only briefly.
If only Spielberg had been able to do that more often. The action sequences in Crystal Skull are further proof Spielberg knows how to direct action better than anyone working in movies today. Using camera movement instead of rapid-fire editing, sequences such as the extended fight/chase atop trucks speeding through the jungle, or a scramble through a patch of sand inhabited by the biggest, meanest red ants on Earth deliver the thrills audiences expect from an Indiana Jones picture.
But Spielberg also pushes things too far, be it a ridiculous vine-swinging interlude in which a pack of CGI monkeys inexplicably decides to help the heroes, or the big finale involving - well, I can't tell you that, but I can say it was created entirely on computers. The CGI artificiality is a most unwelcome addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, robbing some of the action of the tactile, rock-crunching, this-is-really-happening kick you felt when Indy scrambled to get out of the way of that giant rolling boulder in Raiders.
The movie's secret weapon - the smartest thing Spielberg and Lucas do - is the introduction of the rebellious Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who makes an entrance atop a motorcycle like Marlon Brando in The Wild One and, thanks to LaBeouf's easy, unforced charisma, matches Ford quip for quip as they go spelunking, plunge over waterfalls and encounter some unearthly creatures deep beneath some Mayan ruins. LaBeouf is obviously being groomed to take over the series from the aging Ford, and it's not hard to imagine a spin-off franchise with the actor at its helm.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may be the slightest, least memorable entry in the franchise, but it's a franchise with a fairly high bar, and the film's plentiful flaws do not overwhelm its pleasure. We'll soon find out, though, if modern audiences are eager for an action picture in which the protagonist has reached the age "where life stops giving you things and starts taking them away."