There is a certain degree of charm and innocence to seeing Indiana Jones return to our screens once again; after all, most franchises these days are keen to stress their post-9/11 seriousness, giving us the raw edginess of the Bourne films, a new hard ugly James Bond in Casino Royale and a camp-free Batman as played by Christian Bale. What is good about the new Indy film is that it makes no concession to this, jumping straight back into the same territory of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film released no less than 19 years ago.
To judge the film by any other standard than the one set by the original trilogy would be foolhardy, so lets proceed this way; there are the requisite action sequences, scenes of moody tomb-raiding, encounters with strange backward tribes and man-eating insects, dodgy foes with even dodgier accents, and the usual cacophony of fist-fights, chases and occasional pithy one-liners that we are all familiar with. The plot, for what it’s worth, revolves around some sort of alien race, nuclear testing, Russian spies, double agents and other similarly preposterous things that, let’s face it, we all love and don’t really care about the details too much.
Some of these aspects are good – two chase sequences in particular are so ridiculously over-the-top and fun that one can’t help grinning like the Cheshire Cat through them. Spielberg can lay at least partial claim to hegemony on a certain type of action sequence, and makes direction of this seem almost effortless. Harrison Ford still cuts a mean cinematic figure too, and though lacking the boyish charm of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, he makes up for it with a bumbling clumsiness that never seems played-out or annoyingly cloying. There is some terrific scenery chewing by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent and John Hurt, though a little more from all of them would not have gone amiss.
The film seems to press most of the right buttons, and yet in my opinion fell rather flat in places. The presence of some of the exposition, whilst understandable, did drop the pace for long periods, and there was a lack of either urgency or humour to these passages. Indy’s famously sharp tongue was a little blunted throughout, the dialogue never feeling snappy enough to match his previous outings. And what a waste of the returning Karen Allen as Indy’s first love Marion, her initial feistiness quickly pacified by a throwaway cheesy line. Shia LeBeouf is not nearly as irritating as he could have been, but if you can’t see his ‘surprise’ revelation in store a mile off, then a trip to the opticians may well be called for.
Overall, I did end up asking myself why Spielberg chose to come back to Indy after all of these years. Sure he still has the directorial chops, and maybe time is running out to hand the baton over to a younger Jones before Harrison Ford is finally unable to run and jump convincingly for the cameras, but there is neither the vitality of the story nor the sense of completing unfinished business here that spells out that returning to this familiar ground was entirely necessary. Yet for all of its shortcomings, there is still a small part of me that likes the idea that there is still a place for this kind of old-fashioned action movie film-making, without too much knowing self-satisfaction, unnecessary irony, camp nostalgia or post-9/11 grittiness, which so many of the summer blockbusters this year will undoubtedly be full of.