Dr Indiana Jones: a hokey, old-fashioned movie action-hero from the childhood of many film-goers who was based, back in the burgeoning summer blockbuster days of the early 1980s, on a hokey, old-fashioned movie action-hero from the childhood of director Steven Spielberg.
Yes, in case you haven’t realised, Harrison Ford is back as the university professor with a sideline in battling bad guys in a strictly archaeological context and a skill for dodging bullets and boulders in comic book fashion – without suffering a graze. Other pop-iconic inventions, like Batman, have since enjoyed the post-modern treatment at the hands of younger filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, but Spielberg avoids any nod-and-a-wink approach. There’s the odd self-referential moment that points to Indy’s age and to past plots but mostly this is played as straight as the fringe on Cate Blanchett as the villain of the piece.
It’s 1957, Jones has a good war record behind him, the Cold War is in full thrust, and fetish fans can rest easy in the knowledge that Indy has kept that hat, whip and leather jacket from his younger days. He digs them out when Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a young lad who rides into the movie in a nod to Brando in ‘The Wild One’ – all leathers and attitude – offers Indy the challenge of hunting down the Crystal Skull of Akator.
Of course, Indy’s not alone in the search. There are Soviet agents on his trail, led by Blanchett. These are the same agents, all with that glassy stare that American movies often attribute to commies, who we’ve already seen Indy battle with on an American air field in the film’s first action set-piece. For this episode, he narrowly escapes from a nuclear test-bomb that’s detonated on a mock-up of the typical ’50s town. This is surprisingly chilling in tone and slightly recalls the creepy suburban set-up of the early scenes of Spielberg’s ‘AI’. But only Spielberg would puncture this nod at nuclear horror with a quick cut to an anodyne shot of fluffy desert animals.
The rest is familiar. There are car chases, quick sand, river pursuits, poison darts, and exotic locations from the Nevada desert to the jungles of Peru and the Amazon. The only real additions to the mix are some new characters, including Shia LaBoeuf as Indy’s younger sidekick and Ray Winstone as a companion closer to his own age, and a recourse to computer imagery that becomes less and less hidden as the film unfolds. There’s a nod to alien involvement towards the end of the film that feels out of place, and the more the film relies on spectacle, both from special effects and from production design, the more it segues from what audiences really want: human stunts and up-close combat. It’s all perfectly acceptable as a minor thrill ride – nothing more. The film doesn’t feel as punchy, amusing or as fast-paced as the best of the other three films, but it’s passable both as nostalgia and old-fashioned action-adventure that favours impossible leaps from waterfalls over psychological insights and anything in the realm of plot that you could possibly need to believe.
It’s John Hurt as an old academic buddy of Mr Jones who utters a significant line as this fourth adventure, 21 years since the last, comes to a close in a scene that’s so sentimental – even by Spielberg’s standards – that you might be shoving your fist down your throat at the very sight of it. He ponders ‘How much of human life is lost in waiting.’ Is that Mr Spielberg suggesting we shouldn’t get our hopes up over these silly things? If so, he’s definitely right. Expect little, remember that the first three films were all basic affairs, and you might just – just – avoid disappointment.