Opening with a zeitgeist-setting drag race down a dusty desert road, with Elvis Presley blaring on the AM, director Steven Spielberg hits the ground running with a dramatic entry into the legendary Hangar 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, where our hero Indiana (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) have been captured by Commies posing as American soldiers. Its 1957, the height of the Cold War, and the Reds, led by the sinister, sword-wielding Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), have infiltrated the same enormous warehouse that closed Raiders of the Lost Ark to find a mysterious magnetic crystal skull which they want to develop into an all-powerful weapon.
This opening twenty minute blast sets a standard the rest of the film struggles at times to meet. Room must be made for talkative sections that will describe the plot. Indiana discovering his former flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) has been keeping a secret from him, cueing the entrance of rebellious young biker Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), introduced in a nod to Marlon Brando in The Wild One and never without his switchblade and quiff-tidying comb. Then, when Dean Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) explains to Indiana that he is being suspended from teaching while the FBI investigate his loyalties, Jones teams up with Mutt to find the skull, best Spalko and the Commies and clear his name.
Perfectly in keeping with the traditions of this treasured series, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is big, bravura cinema, determined from the off to provide a rollercoaster ride of dizzying spectacle, breakneck stunt work and hyperkinetic action. Although Spielberg promised to keep the computer-generated stuff to a minimum, the film is awash with digitally manipulated sequences, some less polished than others, removing an element of physicality that becomes progressively less involving. When the story does pause for breath, something of the original wit and sparkle is gone; there are fewer funny lines or slapstick moments, with a coterie of chirping prairie dogs over-employed as comic relief and few scant traces of the chemistry between Ford and the under-used Karen Allen remaining. At its best, however, the film has moments that stand proud alongside anything in the previous three films. Indy’s frantic search through a typically Spielberg suburb - this one peopled with plastic figures - while escaping a nuclear test is a standout; eerie, smart and brilliantly realised.
From here on, the film becomes a chase. In one long blur, Spielberg gives us an elaborately constructed sword-fight, an attack by giant ants, a chase along a jungle ravine and three, count ‘em, tumbles over vertiginous waterfalls before arriving at the City of Gold and setting up another round of thrills. It is breathless stuff, moving at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to retain your bearings, but fast enough to introduce novel excitements before the previous adrenal thrill subsides.
Despite the lumpy exposition, in the end the story exists only to give us more time with Indiana Jones and this much it achieves, from the opening theme tune to the snatched fedora and the cracking bullwhip. At 65, Ford gives a full-blooded, skilfully nuanced performance, cheerfully accepting the script’s occasional comic reference to his advanced years and creaking knees. Beside him, LaBeouf and Winstone double-team as capable sidekicks while Blanchett drips venom and allure in equal measure as a delightful baddie. None of the rest makes any impression; Allen is abandoned to smiling reaction shots while the assembled troop of Russians blend into the stunning backgrounds.
Never less than entertaining, Crystal Skull isn’t quite the film we have waited two decades for, being saggy in the middle and occasionally confused, but its close enough.