After nineteen years Indiana Jones is set to return and show ‘em what a real movie hero is all about, but I’m curiously ambivalent about the whole thing. To be one hundred percent honest, I lost interest in the franchise some nineteen years ago after the last installment and this time around I’m only going to see it solely for purposes of reviewing it here and sharing a night at the movies with a pack of my friends. (Most of the group committed to going on opening night are toothsome women who have made it clear they don’t care of the movie turns out to suck and are there solely to gaze up at Harrison Ford’s surly ass.)
The impending release of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL METH, er, SKULL has gotten me to thinking about the three previous installments and their various merits (or lack thereof) and just why the character of Indiana Jones, a throwback to much earlier matinee fare, continues to endure in the hearts and minds of moviegoers, so I figure I’ll start with my own assessment of the character of Dr. Jones himself and then weigh in on the individual films.
But for me the most appealing aspect about Jones is his status as a scholar who is willing, no, downright determined to preserve the artifacts of the past at any cost, making him something of a two-fisted nerd. What bespectacled geek can’t appreciate that? And with his interest in the ancient world comes a respect for other cultures and their ways that’s refreshing and shows Jones to be a more progressive soul than many men from his time, and that is just cool as shit. But are his cinematic vehicles up to his seemingly limitless potential? Let’s look at them and see:
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
The film that introduced us to Indiana Jones came from out of nowhere to give the action/adventure genre a serious kick in the ass, having as much impact on films of its type as STAR WARS (1977) did upon space flicks, as well as instantly establishing itself as a landmark in movie history. Taking place in 1936, well before advancements in travel and communications rendered the world more accessible and therefore less “exotic,” RAIDERS follows Jones on a globe-crossing trek to find the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do, a breakneck mission upon which hangs the fate of the world. Seldom taking time to allow us to catch our breath, the film is an unquestioned tour de force of old school thrills and adventure that delights audiences from all walks of life. Everything about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK works from start to finish; a script that understands and respects its influences, a successful and delicate balance between the blistering action and a very funny sense of humor, violent content that was surprising for a PG movie, a rousing score from John Williams, a real “sense of wonder” in regard to the Ark and its mystical significance once it comes into active play, memorable and “boo”-worthy bad guys (especially that asshole Belloq), the dogged-yet-weary hero, and Karen Allen’s inestimable contribution as Marion Ravenwood all add up to create movie magic. And let’s not overlook the fact that by the end of the story Jones and Marion have both witnessed absolutely concrete proof of the Judeo-Christian God’s existence, and that’s some pretty heavy shit no matter what era you may be from (plus that religious angle is refreshingly not shoved down our throats). There are very few films I can say this about, but after over twenty-five years of repeated viewings and careful consideration I honestly hold RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK up to be the rarest of the rare: a perfect movie.
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
Taking place a year before the events in RAIDERS, TEMPLE OF DOOM finds Jones in India, accompanied by a kid sidekick and pitted against the murderous and balls-out evil Thugee cult, a pack of lowdown bastards who seek possession of the sacred and powerful Sankara stones so they can rule the world. But the real heart of Indy’s mission is to rescue the children of a starving village whom the Thuggee have heartlessly enslaved to dig for some of the missing objects of power, a righteous quest if ever there was one. Greeted with scorn by many when released, TEMPLE OF DOOM is my favorite of the three original Indiana Jones movies because it is unrelentingly dark and terrifying, capturing the old school pulp/serial feel much more accurately than its predecessor and giving us a head villain of toxic loathsomeness in the form of the demonic Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).
Some hated the idea of Indy having a kid sidekick but I dug Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) for his spunk that more than made up for his size, and for his nod to the young adventure hero common to the 1930’s/1940’s adventure genre when it was firing on all cylinders; he’s kind of an Asian version of tweener badass Terry Lee from Milton Caniff’s seminal adventure comic strip TERRY AND THE PIRATES , without the existence of which I seriously doubt there would ever have been a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in the first place. But the one complaint everyone has about this movie, one that I heartily agree with, is Kate Capshaw as the world-class-irritating Willie Scott, a cabaret headliner who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up involved in one of the most horrifying adventures imaginable. Easily the weakest element in the film, Willie — and Capshaw’s performance — can’t help but remind viewers of just how great Marion Ravenwood was and since Willie’s in damned near every scene from start to finish there’s virtually no relief from how truly, godawfully annoying she is. Indy deserved better and so did the audience. But if you can ignore Willie, as I’ve learned to out of necessity, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is a terrifically visceral cinematic experience that allows Jones to shine as a hero who faces and utterly decimates the forces of blackest evil after trials that would have tested the hardiest of ancient mythological heroes and sent other men into the depths of barking madness. Also, once more Jones is faced with clear evidence that deities exist, this time around being Shiva and Kali, and that you don’t fuck around with such powers. Moreso than RAIDERS, this was the film that cemented Indiana Jones for me as a hero I could respect.
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)
In 1938 Indy, accompanied by his long-estranged father (Sean Connery), searches for the Holy Grail before the Nazis can get their hands on it and use its power to further their cause (where have we heard that one before?). Though well-constructed — accent on the “constructed” — this is the Indiana Jones film that has earned my outright hatred for a number of reasons and though I have not seen it since it was first released I remember it like it was yesterday because I felt it was an insult to me as a ticket-buying film fan, and my distaste for it has not diminished one iota during all that time. Some say that EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC is the textbook example of just how bad a sequel to a hit movie can be, but I’ll sit through that lysergic head-scratcher many times over before I ever subject myself to this mess again. And why, you may ask, do I reserve such vitriol for THE LAST CRUSADE? Allow me to elucidate:
• The complete waste of Sean Connery in a part that could have been played by Joe Budidowitz. I’m willing to bet that the filmmakers realized the script was a listless dud that needed all the help it could get, so why not pair an old school action icon — the classic 007 no less — with his cinematic descendant and let the audience’s love of Connery lure them in? We don’t give a shit about the elder Jones and Connery pretty much played the part on apathetic autopilot, bringing to mind his lackluster turn as James Bond in the execrable DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971).
• I was totally insulted by the obvious fact that this film was more or less a remake of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, only with different locations and the excitement surgically removed. The film goes through the motions in an embarrassing display of self-imitation and comes up with bubkes.
• Too much genuinely unfunny comedy.
• It’s established early on that the elder Jones has neglected his son for decades in favor of his obsessive study of the Holy Grail, so when he finally ends up face-to-face with the centuries-old and dying knight who was the keeper of the Grail the elder Jones should have logically taken his place and maintained the Grail for the rest of time, an act that would have satisfyingly wrapped up the character’s arc and seen his purpose fulfilled.
But that doesn’t happen, and instead we get the hoary trope of the sacred, ancient place collapsing, sealing away its mysteries for eternity; it’s the equivalent of getting a hot, willing woman into bed, working both her and yourself into an ecstatic lather and then having her suddenly announce she forgot she had to catch a flight to Marakesh, after which she fucks off out of your life, never to be seen again. All that setup for absolutely nothing and you’re left with a boner that has no place to go. When you look at it from that point of view, imagine how Old Man Jones would have felt.
Those are my major complaints about INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, but it’s that last one that truly sank the film for me. There’s nothing I hate more than when a tale violates its own internal story logic for no good reason and fucks over its audience; this is popcorn cinema, for fuck’s sake, and I expect to be satisfied by its escapist fun, and that ending was about as unsatisfying for me as it could possibly have been.
Which brings us to INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL METH. Thanks to nearly two decades having passed and my strong dislike of the last installment, I can approach the new film with the lowest of expectations, secure in the knowledge that it will have to amount to an intentional act of foisting a steaming turd onto the world’s screens to in any way be as bad as the last one. That sort of gives me hope, but I’m going in stoic and will reserve judgment until later. Check back here on Saturday for the skinny on how it all went down.
And who knows? If KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL METH goes over well enough, maybe they'll restart the aborted Indiana Jones project, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF NAMBLA.
Now that would be one hell of a scary adventure!