Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

05/21/2008 12:00 AM |

As in James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, the Indiana Jones series has occasionally burnished its own mythology by referring to skin-of-his-teeth adventures not yet recorded. The curious tale of the Crystal Skull might have been better left as a speculative footnote on an Indy fansite instead of becoming fodder for a functional event movie.

In the garish 50s (and his post-nap-growly 60s), a blacklisted Jones vies with a Commie psychic-warfare agent (Cate Blanchett) for a Peruvian tomb artifact of untold power. (Tintin fans might see a raid on bits from Spielberg’s next hot property.) With alien beings figuring in the mix, as well as hit-your-mark dialogue, the story feels like what it is — a 20-years-on sequel, aka “Seed of Indiana” with Shia LeBeouf as whippersnapper sidekick to our aging and learned rebel.

Much like in Temple of Doom, a few fine setpieces prop up the rest of the movie, but despite Sunday’s preemptive Times preview, the dazzling chutes-and-ladders physicality and editing that defined past installments is in short supply (the nadir: LeBeouf swinging on jungle vines with monkeys). As for Mr. Ford, an opening chase in a government hangar concertedly shows the old bones in working order, but, possibly as a function of his war-vet character, he seems too comfortable to go all out in entertaining (unlike returning Raiders peppercorn Karen Allen).

Exuberantly executed anachronisms, the earlier Jones adventures happily bore the hokiness of their serial inspiration: the legends, the bullet-showered escapes, the sets, the moral at the end. In the thankless task of making a long-delayed follow-up in his earlier image, Spielberg — always hit-or-miss with (explicit) sequels — has made an overcautious movie, comfort food for some tastes but not very fresh.

Opens May 22