Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I absolutely love Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It will forever be one of my all-time favorite movies, and I will giggle at the same points or point out the same technical errors every time I see it until the day I die.  The other Indy movies though...I'm not nearly as big a fan of.  I know that's a bit of an understatement when it comes to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I've never been a fan of Temple of Doom, either.  Last Crusade has always been my number two Indy film, partly because it was the one I saw first (I think) and partly because it is the closest to Raiders in its tone.  I loved this movie when I was growing up, but the last time I saw it (it's been years), I was struck by how silly and almost campy it gets.  Let's see how time has changed my feelings, shall we?

The film opens with a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) on a Boy Scout trip, where we learn the origin of many Indy-related things.  We learn how he came to wield a bullwhip, how he got the scar on his chin, what instigated his fear of snakes, and what inspired his awesome leather jacket/fedora combination.  It's a fun action sequence, but it doesn't really factor much into the plot.

The movie begins in proper with Professor Indiana Jones (Harrision Ford) being approached a wealthy antiquity collector, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), to assume leadership over the project he has funded to seek the Holy Grail; the last leader has recently gone missing.  Indiana refuses at first, suggesting that Donovan should hire his estranged father, Henry Jones (Sean Connery), because he is one of the most prominent Grail scholars in the world; Donovan replies that he already had --- Henry was the man who went missing.  This convinces Indy to follow his father's footsteps, because the only reason anyone would want to capture or hurt Henry was to learn about the Grail; the logic is if you find one, you'll find the other along the way.  So, off goes Indiana Jones, on history's greatest scavenger hunt to find Christianity's holiest sacred object.  Along the way, he falls for a girl, fights some Nazis, and reunites with his father.
Charlie Chaplin's dramatic turn
Sure, I could go more into the plot, but what does that accomplish?  It's an adventure, and it should be experienced like one.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does a lot of things right, and it begins with the cast.  Harrison Ford's best character is Indiana Jones, and he's not reduced to pimp slapping women or children in this movie (like he was in Temple of Doom).  Instead, he's back to the clever, puzzle-solving pugilist we all know and love.  Sean Connery is pretty endearing as Indiana's book-smart (but not street-smart) father.  While his character is responsible for most of the film's humor, I thought Connery and Ford worked very well as an exasperated father/son combination.  Former Bond girl Alison Doody played the part of Dr. Elsa Schneider, both friend and foe to the Joneses.  She wasn't great, but she played her part as villain and ally just fine.  Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies were both welcome additions to the cast as they resumed their roles from the original film, but neither really had the same impact this time around.  Still, it was nice to see them.  Julian Glover did a pretty solid job as the bad guy, but he wasn't quite villainous enough for my taste; lucky for him, he had Nazis on his side to help him seem worse.  I also thought River Phoenix did a very good job as a young Indiana.  Phoenix was often a very good actor, but I thought he did a good job carrying himself like the established character and not just becoming an infantile version.  His hair was absolutely ridiculous, though.
That sure looks like a 1912 haircut, Indy.
Steven Spielberg directed this, and it plays to his strengths.  When it comes to epic adventure and fun, there are few directors that can compete with Spielberg when he feels like making a popcorn flick.  The tone of the first half of this film is definitely reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that's not a bad thing.  Things change when Sean Connery shows up and adds some comedic elements to the film, but this is certainly a sequel with the spirit of the original in mind.  In my mind, Spielberg has two areas of expertise.  One is his talent for finding unexpected laughs in otherwise serious scenes, like the whole "Jehovah starts with an 'I'" bit.  The other is the majestic way he reveals things in movies, like the perspective bridge.
Wrong Holy Grail bridge scene, sorry.
The pace of the film is brisk, there is action every few minutes, but it manages to not feel like a dumb action movie.  You never realize just how hard it is to make an intelligent action movie until you watch a few dozen Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in a row.  The camerawork is also good, although the special effects are sometimes a little dated.  In particular, the blimp doesn't look too impressive any more, but that's definitely a minor flaw.  I think what impressed me most in this movie is the opening action sequence with River Phoenix.  Spielberg managed to create a very fluid and extended series of shots --- any one of which could have been suitable opening action scenes for a typical movie --- and still show off character traits in the process.

Speaking of the action scenes, there's a lot of them.  The good news is that they're all good.  In fact, this film might have the only decent boat chase ever; that's kind of like having the least smelly poop, I know, but it's still an accomplishment.  I think these scenes were fit into the film because Spielberg had a checklist of things he wanted Indy to fight ("We've got a tank...a blimp...a boat...how about a Nazi castle?"), but everything flows together pretty well.  The great thing about Indiana Jones is that he takes a beating when he's fighting on screen, so nothing ever looks too easy.  That's just part of his charm.

Last Crusade is certainly charming, but it is not without its problems.  I think it's kind of silly that a famously generous philanthropist (Donovan donates a lot to the museum) is the film's antagonist.  Darn those generous evil men who don't value human life!  I wish the protectors of the Grail were a little more effective than my beloved Chicago Cubs --- neither has had a big win in 2000-ish years.  I'm pretty sure that they didn't shoot a single Nazi in this whole movie.  And remember when they lit the catacombs on fire?  Indy manages to escape and climb out of a manhole in the street, only to find the Grail guys sprinting out of the library to catch him; shouldn't they have been assuming that Indy was a crispy critter right about then?  What made them check out in the street?  More to the point, why were they sprinting?  You would think two thousand years would have been enough time to practice how to kill people, but I guess you never know until the time comes.  I'm also a little confused by the catacomb fire scene on Indy's side of things; if the liquid he is swimming in it petroleum, shouldn't it hurt really, really bad when he opens his eyes underwaterpetroleum?  And those are just the silly things in the story.

There's a lot more strangeness going on with the characters.  For starters, I am going to have to submit Harrison Ford's (I presume intentionally) awful Scottish accent as one of the cartooniest foreign accents ever to grace a blockbuster picture.  What kind of a plan centers on something that stupid?  A bad plan, I agree.  Too bad it worked.  That's nothing compared to the evolution of Marcus Brody.  In the original film and the first part of this one, Marcus is a respectable, intelligent academic.  From the moment the Grail protectors knock him on the head, though, he becomes a bumbling idiot.  "But they're just making him a fish out of water in those later scenes.  He's book smart, not street smart."  Quiet, you.  I stand by "bumbling idiot."

Side note: Indiana Jones is the worst college professor ever.  He skips office hours, refuses to grade papers, goes missing for weeks at a time, and your girlfriend has a crush on him.

One of my biggest complaints about Last Crusade is also one of the aspects that makes it so unique --- the humor.  I'm pretty certain that Spielberg made a conscious effort to make a more light-hearted movie than Temple of Doom (which helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating), and to do so, he added comic relief.  Most of that came from the interactions between Henry and Indiana Jones.  Comic relief is fine by me, but I wish that Indy wasn't the butt of the jokes; if someone was exasperated or comically injured thanks to Henry, it was usually Indy.  It doesn't help that Marcus becomes an idiot halfway through the film, but the majority of the jokes come from Henry.  And yet, I like the dynamic between father and son, and I thought both actors did a good job.  It's kind of annoying when the one aspect of a film that makes you roll your eyes is also the (pretty effective) heart of the story, too.

That's the kind of movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is; even its worst parts contribute to the film's strengths.  Plus, it's got a ton of wicked awesome scenes in it.My personal favorites are the "No tickets" bit on the blimp, and "He chose...poorly."
...and featuring Christopher Lloyd!
Last Crusade is not my favorite Indy movie, but it stands up pretty well on its own.  It doesn't necessarily improve on the formula from the original movie, but it plays along and adds more heart.  Aside from some corny humor --- which isn't nearly as campy as I remembered --- this is a great big fun adventure.  And that's exactly what it should be.
You might have noticed the famous Wilhelm Scream when the Grail protectors fight the Nazis.  I notice it in a lot of movies, but this time I was inspired to look it up online.  Here's a fun little compilation.

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