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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Ah, Indiana Jones. There’s something nice about an action hero who doesn’t swashbuckle or posture; he just gets the job done. Already 39 when he first played the role in 1981, Harrison Ford brought a weird maturity to a genre that was basically designed for kids, wearing a perpetual bemused expression that said, I can’t believe I’m doing this shit. If you were in the target demo when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, it was probably the fastest-paced, most thrilling movie you had ever seen, and Indy was the perfect guide to shepherd you through it — he was both your sardonic peer and the coolest dad ever.

He had his detractors, of course. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael used Raiders as an example of how marketing and the blockbuster mentality were swamping Hollywood, describing it as “dumb, motor excitement” with an “obsessive pace . . . as if the sheer technology had taken over.”

Clip those quotes from context, and they could be the current critical reaction to Speed Racer, whose pace makes Raiders seem leisurely. Nowadays, it’s pretty much a given that summer movies will vie to approximate the biggest, loudest amusement park ride, and that the industry depends on their massive grosses. That doesn’t mean we have to like it. But there’s still something to be said for silly thrills over soulless thrills, and Indiana Jones movies epitomize the former, with Ford’s grounded presence putting them in a long tradition of beloved American tall tales.

Set in 1957, two decades after Raiders, Crystal Skull follows Indy as he races to find a South American artifact, joined by teen-demo-friendly sidekick Shia LaBeouf. Some evil KGB agents want the skull, too, because Cate Blanchett, playing Stalin’s favorite paranormal researcher, thinks it will enable her to mind-control ordinary Americans into renouncing their capitalist ways. With a teaser set in Area 51, this is “Indy Meets ‘The X-Files,’” but the plot turns out to be beside the point. As in most of these summer-franchise movies, it’s merely an excuse for acrobatic car chases, death-defying escapes and random attacks by man-eating ants.

Like the multiple Oscar winner he is, director Steven Spielberg fills the movie with clever visual homages to the first Indy film, including scenes that echo others almost shot for shot. That’s good for nostalgia value, but Raiders was no Citizen Kane. Somewhere between Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and this movie, the series lost whatever tenuous grasp it had on reality and became half Monty Python sketch, half cartoon. In one delirious sequence, LaBeouf leaps out of a car chase straight into the trees, where he swings Tarzan-like from vine to vine and befriends some helpful CGI monkeys. That’s followed by a scene — or is it a sight gag? — in which a puny boat easily weathers a series of mammoth Amazon cascades.

It all leads to a climax that could only be described as a half-hearted reprise, and a denouement that makes Jones’ efforts seem beside the point. Gone is the gothic religious imagery of Raiders, and gone too are the harder edges: Despite all the violence, we only see Indy actually kill one bad guy.

What makes it work, besides the sheer giddiness of those Saturday-afternoon-serial-inspired stunts, is the people. LaBeouf’s upstart greaser character could have been an insufferable brat, but he’s a likeable presence with good comic timing. Past retirement age, and gruffer and grumpier than ever, Ford can still spout bogus archaelogical trivia as nimbly as he throws a punch. And his smile when he meets his original leading lady, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, freckly and luminous in her late fifties), looks absolutely genuine. Both actors seem almost comically elated to be back on screen in these roles. They’re good folks to grow old with.

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