Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Indiana Jones Series Review: The Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Denholm Elliot, John Rhys-Davies

Topped only by Raiders of the Lost Ark (in my opinion), Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade is a spectacular return to form for a series that dropped into dangerous waters with a mediocre second attempt. Last Crusade takes all the things we loved about the first Indy film - great supporting characters, biblical artifacts grounded in myths familiar to the public, Nazi villains - and added Sean Connery to the mix as Indy's father, Dr. Henry Jones, Sr.

The storyline for this film might even be slightly better than Raiders - Indy is recruited by Walter Donovan (weak - get Belloq back!) to find Henry Jones, Sr. who was the team leader on the worldwide search for the Holy Grail. Arthurian legend is something that I've always been fond of, so this movie has a special place in my heart because of its MacGuffin. The search for the grail has been something that Indy's father has obsessed over for his entire life, and it takes reconnection with his son to finally accomplish his lifelong goal. Connery's appearance doesn't come until about 45 minutes in, which is fine because we don't really need to see him until that point.

Interestingly enough, Spielberg mirrors my own feelings toward Temple of Doom, and he freakin' directed it! In this 1988 article from Premiere magazine, he says "I wasn't happy with the second film at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. There's not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom." And the reason he made Last Crusade? "To apologize for the second one." If there wasn't any of Spielberg's feeling in TOD, and LC was his return to the tone of Raiders, then let's all hope that pattern doesn't continue. That would mean the upcoming sequel will have Lucas' hands all over it, and not enough of Spielberg to shine through. The rumor is that the supposed alien/Area 51 aspect was all Lucas' idea, so fans can only hope that Spielberg and Harrison Ford had enough power to overturn as many of those decisions as possible.

Back to the Last Crusade. The introduction is outstanding, and as Branz said in his review for Temple of Doom, almost Bondian in nature. It's one of my favorite parts of the film, featuring a young Indiana Jones (not to be confused with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series) who gets caught up in quite the adventure and explains the origin of his hatred for snakes, how he got that small scar on his chin, how the whip became his go-to weapon, where he got that sweet hat, and gives us a small peek into his home life with his father (who isn't shown on screen at this point). It also shows his love for archeology and his sense of justice when he finds the Cross of Coronado, which he believes "belongs in a museum" and after it's removed from him, the movie catches up to the present time (1938) and Indy is once again on the search for Coronado's Cross, this time narrowly escaping a boat explosion and coming away with the item he's been searching for his whole life (a microcosm of the movie about to unfold before our eyes). [How are they gonna top THAT intro in the next movie?]

The action and suspense in Last Crusade are so good that it's easy to confuse scenes in this film with ones in Raiders. Tank chases, motorcycle chases, breaking out of a German castle, boat chases, blimp chases - all top notch. The music is classic Johnny Williams at his best, and features a really awesome motif for whenever the Holy Grail is mentioned to go along with probably the best theme song ever.

Say goodbye (and good riddance) to the most annoying duo in the franchise, Willie Scott and Short Round from Temple of Doom, and welcome back your old pals Marcus Brody and Sallah with open arms. I know I did. After painfully sitting through TOD and feeling sorry for Indy for not having an intellectual equal within 3000 miles, in this installment his comrade Marcus Brody accompanies our hero to Italy in search for his father and the grail. The interaction of Brody and Connery's Dr. Jones provides much of the humor for the movie, and Sallah's comedic timing is right on the money as usual. (My favorite comedic part is when Indy goes off on the Nazis about how Marcus Brody speaks all these languages and how much he'll blend in, how he's probably got the grail already, etc. and then it cuts to Brody wildly wandering through a crowd desperate for someone who speaks English.)

Even with the inclusion of some ethically questionable plot points (father and son sleeping with the same woman?), Last Crusade concentrates heavily on the relationship between Indy and his father. Strained growing up, they are now thrust together to stop the Nazis from using the Grail's unthinkable power to take over the world, or some other such nonsense. The whole movie is a search for a father's approval and a son's love, both of which are fulfilled at the end in glorious Spielberg fashion (that dude loves him some characterization).

One aspect I didn't enjoy as much as the other films was the requisite "creepy critter" scene, using rats instead of snakes or insects like the first two, which seemed like a downgrade to me. This also leads me to wonder what kind of creature will be featured in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when it opens next week; they've taken all of the biggies, so what are they going to use this time? Branz suggested spiders since it appears they'll be in South America for a portion, according to the trailer. Geographically, I'm inclined to agree with him (I'm sure they're monstrous in that part of the world), but then again, they already used tarantulas in the opening of Raiders, so I don't know if they'd recycle that idea.

The ending of Last Crusade squeezes by as my favorite of the three - even though I love the very last shot of Raiders with the Ark in the warehouse, the entire last 30 minutes of this movie are perfect in my mind. Henry Jones, Sr. on the brink of death, living vicariously through his son who is searching for the only thing that can save him in time, going through thousand-year-old trials and traps that Henry spent his life researching - the two characters are so meticulously linked here on so many levels, and it's beautiful to watch. Not to mention the special effects of the Leap of Faith cavern are still exceptional, even comparing them to today's standards. The final credits shot, preceded by Brody trying to be a cowboy and nearly falling off his horse, is a nice throwback to the cowboy films that influenced this series from the beginning. The four horsemen riding into the sunset was gorgeous on screen, and must have been Spielberg's "sigh of relief" as the filming came to an end.

Little did he know that 19 years later, a new Indy film would be coming to theaters. Check back in a week or so to get my thoughts on the highly-anticipated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. To tide you over, here's a high quality YouTube video of just the music of the ending credits for Last Crusade. Until next time...


Noah said...

It's tough to imagine them bringing Belloq back for LC, considering his head exploded in RothLA. Not having a head can often be a hindrance to good dialogue.

Ben Pearson said...

Hahah...right you are, Noah. I merely meant someone with Belloq's presence and abilities instead of the mediocre Walter Donovan. But yeah, I can see how there might be some dialogue issues there...