The fourth Indiana Jones adventure, expanding the formerly earthbound series to include space aliens and flying saucers, should be titled "Close Encounters of the Tired Kind." Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas go through the motions but fail to recapture the magic that made "Raiders of the Lost Ark" an escapist masterpiece, and its two sequels entertaining romps.
The new film, in theaters today, moves the Man in the Hat to 1957 and late middle age. With the Nazis gone, Indy now faces down the Red Menace in the field and Cold War blacklisting on his college campus. After being forced to help a squad of Russian soldiers invading a secret base in New Mexico, where they steal an extraterrestrial artifact, Jones is accused by overzealous FBI agents of aiding the enemy, and is fired from the position.
He follows the Russians to the wilds of South America, where the legendary Crystal Skull holds the key to Soviet mind-reading warfare.
(An elongated, transparent cranium with purple neon highlights, the doohickey resembles a custom phone you might find at Spencer's Gifts.) Joining Jones are his juvenile-delinquent sidekick Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), Indiana's feisty first love Marion (Karen Allen), his undependable partner Mac (Ray Winstone) and Prof. Oxley (John Hurt), an academic who has gone native, and nutty, in the jungle.
The film isn't a travesty like Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels, but aside from a clever atomic test-site sequence, it's listless, low in energy and poorly paced. Is it the age or the mileage? Maybe it's the general wear and tear of overfamiliarity. It doesn't help that "National Treasure," "Sahara" and "The Da Vinci Code" have spawned copycat adventures. The set pieces are so recognizable that they feel like a stroll down memory lane. When our grumpy archaeologist explores a lost temple, there seems to be dust on top of dust, cobwebs on the cobwebs. As Ford rasps at one point, "Same old same old."
Ford, who is now 65, is in stupendous shape -- a shower scene shows how much time he has been spending with his personal trainer -- but he sleepwalks through the part in an uninspired performance. His fights lack the acrobatic snap and tension of earlier brawls. At this stage in his career, Dr. Jones isn't an athletic daredevil. He's spry.
The action sequences are staged and edited sloppily, a far cry from the death-defying stuntman extravaganzas of yore. The chief villain is Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, reveling in the role of a saber-wielding femme fatale). She and her henchmen battle Jones' crew in endless, repetitive scenes of vehicular combat. Opponents must leap between speeding automobiles a hundred times, and the overkill is wearying.
Most of the high-tension moments are transparently fake, with actors swaying in front of a green screen. When Indy lowered himself between the wheels of a speeding truck in "Raiders," you knew you were seeing a risky deed accomplished in reality. Here, when cars race along a cliff edge you think, "Nice computer graphics." The genuinely ooky live snakes, rats and insects from the earlier films are replaced with CG ants that simply don't have the same bite. Worse yet, the fuzzy-friendly Lucas inserts colonies of icky-cute prairie dogs, and tribes of monkeys in an inane passage where Mutt swings on jungle vines Tarzan-style.
The film ends on a note that suggests he's being groomed to pick up the bullwhip in future installments of the series. I'm not sure I'd welcome that; it might be time for Ford to hang up the fedora.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186