It’s been a long, long time since the last “last” time: When Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. rode off into the sunset in May 1989, courtesy of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the Berlin Wall was still standing, George H.W. Bush was only four months into his presidency, and Harrison Ford was just a young whippersnapper of 46.
Quite why Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas — three of the wealthiest men in Hollywood — should feel the need to resurrect Indiana Jones at this late stage of the game is anybody’s guess. The three men have a combined age of 191, but like many boomers, they’re not ready for the rest home just yet, even if living in the past seems a strange way to show it.
The first Indiana Jones film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” was already a nostalgia trip when it was released in 1981, a guileless celebration of the old-fashioned Saturday morning adventure serials that were a staple for any kid growing up in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. That makes the new film, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a throwback to a throwback.
But time is catching up with the series.
The new film is set in 1957, enabling Ford to act his age (or something like it). But this is the outer edge of a time when America could still believe in the simple black-and-white morality Indiana represents. If the Nazis and the Reds couldn’t finish him off, the ’60s surely would.
Still, in some ways, the extra years suit Ford. Indiana has always been a surly old sourpuss, a pragmatic, world-weary hero in the classic WWII mold. Indy’s fondness for griping is part of what makes him human. And when it comes to trading punches, cracking heads or disinterring the dead, Ford can still get it done. If he can’t, his stunt double can.
The movie opens in Nevada, where Dr. Jones is caught up in a daring raid on Area 51 led by Soviet agent Irina Spalko, played by a Cate Blanchett in a severe black bob, long black rubber gloves and a rapier. (It’s a get-up so outré, even Joe Stalin would smile.) In a twist worthy of “The Twilight Zone,” Indy finds himself in an ersatz small town populated by cardboard figures watching “Howdy Doody” — a test site for an imminent A-bomb explosion.
This bravura, breakneck opening immediately rekindles the old magic: the mixture of bravado and wit with action sequences that keep piling on layer upon layer of peril. Unfortunately, this is also the high point of the movie, or close to it.
Indiana’s brush with the Reds makes him a person of interest to the FBI just after the height of the McCarthy period, a quick, passing nod toward a post-9/11 sensibility that the movie runs away from almost as desperately as Indy scrambles from an army of man-eating ants. At this point, screenwriter David Koepp in effect starts the story all over again, this time with Brylcreemed biker Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) making a clumsy pitch about rescuing his mom from kidnappers in South America.
That, and something about a legendary crystal skull, get Indiana Jones’ juices churning, and suddenly the old professor and the young tough are off on an adventure.
This outlandish hokum doesn’t bear close scrutiny, so it’s probably just as well Dr. Jones is not one for introspection. He does his thinking on his feet, and so does Spielberg, who sometimes seems to be directing this with one eye on the exit signs.
It is good to see Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood, easily the pick of Indiana’s women. She lends the enterprise some heart that is sorely lacking elsewhere. It’s just a pity Koepp can’t find more for her to do. (Ray Winstone, as an Indy colleague, is also poorly used.)
A long jungle chase is another bona fide highlight, but Spielberg and Lucas misjudge the film’s extravagant CGI climax; I won’t spoil it here, but it feels alien to Indy’s world. Let’s just say we have seen this before, from Spielberg himself, and done better, too.
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” has enough going for it to secure the bronze medal in the series and even compete for the silver, but “The Last Crusade” was a more graceful farewell. Indeed, the prospect of a revived series — either with Ford or LaBeouf in the driver’s seat — isn’t especially enticing. “The Adventures of Mutt Williams,” anyone?