INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (PG-13). Indiana Jones returns to battle a group of evil Russians hunting for a lost artifact with supposed psychic powers. Starring Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett and Karen Allen. 2:07 (violence and gruesome imagery). Opens Thursday at area theaters, with some screening it at midnight Wednesday.
There are two ways to manage a film franchise. One is to continually reinvent and update it, which has worked pretty well for James Bond. The other method is to simply stick with what worked the first time.
That’s what director Steven Spielberg and creator-producer George Lucas have done with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” their 1981 adventure classic. There’s no recapturing Ark’s innocent magic, so the filmmakers, through two middling but popcorn-worthy sequels – 1984’s “Temple of Doom” and 1989’s “The Last Crusade” – basically reworked the original while taking care not to sully our memories of it. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” manages the same balancing act, though with some major wobbles as usual.
All necessary ingredients are here: ancient riddles, rumbling stone technology, a precious artifact with supernatural powers. And Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, still dashing in leather bomber jacket or professorial tweed. But now it’s 1957, Jones is grayer and creakier, and the new (-ish) villains are Cold War Russians. (Cate Blanchett vamps as their leader, Irina Spalko, a Stalinist she-wolf wrapped in a military body suit.) Karen Allen returns as Marion, Indiana’s tomboyish lover, now the mother of a rebellious teenager, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf).
The film is fast-moving, fun and occasionally inventive (the man-eating ants are a nice touch). But its success rides almost entirely on Ford, who brightens the action – always improbable, occasionally ludicrous – with physical humor and rascally charm. He wears the role so naturally that his supporting actors often seem to be faking it. And speaking of fake: The disappointing crystal skull of the title, a clear shell with some flashing lights in the cranium, resembles a novelty phone.
The film hints that another sequel might come our way. If so, more of the same will probably work fine, but a reinvention might be in order.