A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 469 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – June 12th, 2011

You know how the Star Trek movies have that thing where the odd numbered ones used to always be the bad (or relatively bad) ones and the even ones were good (until the reboot)? I think the Indiana Jones movies work the opposite way, with the odd numbered ones being good and the even numbered ones being unfortunate. Of course, I can’t say that for certain, having not seen the fourth one yet, but I remember thinking it the first time I saw this one. After all, even though I do enjoy the second one in places I will freely admit that it’s got some major problems and is vastly inferior to the first. It’s also vastly inferior to the third. So my theory holds true even without the fourth.

Part of what works so much better here is that while it is indeed formulaic, it’s gone back to the Christian relic + Nazi villains combination and brought back John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott as minor characters who firmly ground the character of Indiana Jones. And then there are some twists to the formula, with Indy’s father and a female lead who isn’t at all like either of the others. I think this basic formula is fairly solid, but it’s also somewhat limited. Keeping the villains as an easily recognizable group that there are no questions about the nastiness of is a good move. And keeping the relic Indy is looking for as something known and easily identified is also a good move. It means less scrambling to explain the importance of the item and why so many people want it. It uses existing folklore. So I forgive the movie its formulaic construction, because instead of flailing around like the second one did, it gets right down to business. And that business is kicking Nazi ass.

I do also like that this movie makes fun of itself. By this point, even with just two movies, it was pretty obvious that Indiana Jones was a cultural icon. The hat, the coat, the whip, the stubble. The fear of snakes! And this movie starts out right from the beginning by giving us some background, showing a young Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) starting off with his “this should be in a museum” attitude, facing off against a be-stubbled man in a leather jacket and a fedora. He falls into a tank full of snakes. He gets his whip. It’s all so very pat, but I find I don’t much care. After all, if we go with this being an homage to serials I would expect the hero’s background to be set out in such a way, with everything pointing towards his present representation. I also like that the beginning of the movie, with the somewhat unrelated adventure and artifact quest segment, isn’t just showing Indy doing what he does. It’s giving us character background as well as introducing Indy’s father and his fascination with the Holy Grail. It’s far more elegantly done than the Shanghai action scene from last night.

The story follows Indiana Jones as he heads off to track down his missing father. Sure, he’s also looking for the Holy Grail, but he flat out states that his father is his real reason for being there. Of course, he does get caught up in the search. And I like that about his character. He finds the hunt exciting and interesting and he does get wrapped up in it, gleefully making rubbings and destroying the floors of ancient buildings. Okay, so that last part makes me wince (it’s in a library) but the rest? It’s some nice character building. It makes his character more three dimensional.

It also helps that his father is played by Sean Connery, who is so perfect in his role I can’t find words for him. I love everything about his character, from his flirting to his chiding of his son to his disbelief that this is what archaeology involves these days. He is the perfect foil to the hero and he doesn’t do it by flailing around. And Indy needs a foil. He needs someone to point out that he’s not perfect. Because he isn’t and that’s part of his charm. He messes up and he gets smacked around and he doesn’t always win. He goes up against impossible odds and sure, in the movies he wins, but they’re hard wins. And in a series where he’s won several times it would be easy to fall into a bit of a trap with him. It’s why I had some trouble with the Spider-Man movies. Give a hero too many wins and he gets cocky. And when Indy gets cocky he needs someone there to remind him he’s not invincible. And Sean Connery does that with relish, happily calling him Junior and solving problems without going to the lengths that Indy would have. And he’s also a dedicated researcher, determined to find the Grail. Which gives them a point of mutual interest – research and the hunt for something long lost – that keeps their relationship from total antipathy.

I think it was a smart move to put the elder Dr. Jones into the movie when they did. The movie takes a bit of time with it, giving Indy a femme fatale to deal with (Dr. Elsa Schneider – who initially seems to be helping him) and some action scenes in a crypt full of rats and a boat chase through Venice. And that’s just enough. Okay, I admit that the secret brotherhood that were trying to protect the location of the Grail and their convenient knowledge of where Indy’s father was being held is a little more than I’d care for, I do like that they’re good guys. And when the Nazis show up and Elsa turns on them we get the elder Dr. Jones to take up the role of Indy companion and keep things interesting.

The other thing I especially like about this movie is that the supernatural element is kept to the end, like in the first movie. This isn’t a movie about supernatural things happening. It’s a movie about a single item with supernatural properties. Which to me is far more interesting and works better with the action archaeology concept that the series is built on. I would far rather see fights on top of moving tanks and Indy figuring out puzzles than have him deal with people with magic powers. And this time they kept the deadly puzzle room sequence for the final scenes, making it an integral part of the plot.

And that’s what I mean about the twists. The formula is all there, but there are tweaks to how each part is presented and I enjoy that. Oh, it’s not as brilliantly done as the first one, but nothing could be. I’d very much have liked a female lead who is both independent and positive, but at least Elsa is intelligent and capable, even if she is a villain in the end. And she’s just as fascinated by the hunt and the artifact as the Doctors Jones. Overall it’s a bit too crisp in places. A bit too obvious. But it’s also a lot of fun and gets it right the vast majority of the time. And that’s really all I ask.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiana Jones and the The Last Crusade

June 12, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is about this movie that misses the mark for me. I saw it in the theater on opening night with my high school AV crew, and although it was a great time, and far better than Temple of Doom, but I’ve never really felt that the movie lived up to the first one. It’s strange, because this movie is filled with great action, has clever and self depreciating references to the entire Indiana Jones mythos, and even has a couple fantastic and popular actors added to the franchise. So why does it not deliver? I have to think it’s because it’s so carefully engineered to be the perfect Indiana Jones movie. Every detail is carefully calculated to fit a particular pattern and it comes off feeling artificial and shallow to me.

The opening scene very clearly lays out just what kind of movie we’re going to be watching. We join a very young Indiana Jones as he and his scout troop explore in the wilderness of Utah. He and one of his friends come across a group of thieves ransacking a lost treasure and he feels compelled to intercede. In a fun series of short adventures we are shown where Indie got his fear of snakes, his whip and the distinctive scar on his chin. The whole opening act is played with a wink to the audience. It’s fun to watch, filled with humor and adventure, and it pokes fun at Indiana Jones while celebrating him, which is pretty much what the whole movie is about.

The main plot of the movie involves Indie being hired to recover the Holy Grail before the Nazis can. In just about every way it feels as though it’s trying almost too hard to replicate the first movie. Instead of snakes there are rats. The action chase scenes that are the bread and butter of a Jones film are plentiful and thrilling. There’s a boat chase, a motorcycle chase, an escape in a plane and of course the climactic fight between Indie on his horse and a giant German tank. There are still diabolical and implausible booby traps protecting the treasure of course. I can’t deny that it’s filled with everything that was lacking in the second movie – but it all feels so manufactured.

Where this movie shines is with the introduction of Sean Connery as Indie’s domineering father Henry Jones Sr., who has been obsessed with the grail all his life, somewhat to the consternation of his son, who feels that he’s been somewhat ignored. It’s the father/son interaction and the way that they discover each other that brings the most life to the film. Connery plays Henry as bookish and sheltered but wise and very clever as well. He’s somewhat out of place in Indiana’s world of constant adventure, but slowly comes to be a part of it as the film goes on. It’s these interactions, with Henry finding out what kind of life his son lives and getting caught up in it, that I enjoy most when I’m watching the movie.

At the same time there are expanded roles for a couple characters from the first movie. Indiana’s museum curator friend Marcus returns in a much expanded role as he comes along on the adventure. He’s played with an affable sort of cluelessnes by Denholm Elliott, who takes a role that was only in a couple minutes of the first movie and expands him into one of the primary comic relief characters in this movie. There’s also John Rhys-Davies reprising his role as Sallah, the Egyptian excavator who helps Indie out in his hunt for the Ark.

So this movie has everything. It has an origin story (starring the dashing young River Phoenix in the Indiana Jones role – how I regret that his career was cut so tragically short.) It has more action and adventure than the first two movies combined. It has Nazis and a lost religious relic. It has not one but three sidekicks, one of whom is Sean Frickin’ Connery for crissakes! It’s bigger and more impressive than Raiders of the Lost Ark in every possible way. And yet I still find myself slightly underwhelmed.

I’m guessing that the problem is not so much with the movie, although it IS very heavily over designed and carefully crafted to fit perfectly into the Indiana Jones mold, and is more related to my unreasonably high expectations. As I said in my review a couple days ago I have watched Raiders over and over again. I have memorised the entire film from beginning to end. It was so unique, and appeared at such a perfect time in my childhood, and it really was the perfect action adventure film. Any attempt to match up to that experience for me is going to feel cheap, derivative and pandering.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment