Monday, May 26, 2008

Hold On To Your Potatoes!: An Indiana Jones Review-Fest

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Archaeologist and part-time professor Indiana Jones spans the globe with a whip and a fedora in search of the fabled Ark of the Covenant in hopes of finding it before a gang of Nazis have the chance to dig it up and use it's powers for evil. You probably already knew that, though. Since the theatrical debut of Raiders in 1981, Indiana Jones has become as much of a recognizable household name as George Washington, Darth Vader, and Bugs Bunny. To this day it remains one of the most cherished films and film franchises in the history of cinema, and I'm sure that you hardly need me to explain why, but I'm going to anyway. With the help of creator George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford created a lovable, memorable character in Indiana Jones, whom is the backbone upon which Raiders of the Lost Ark (and it's sequels) are balanced. He's level-headed and courageous, while at the same time very down-to-Earth and not without a sense of humor, making him both easy to relate to and someone to idolize. Other characters in Raiders, such as Miriam (Karen Allen) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), are likable and entertaining as well, while villains like Major Toht (Ronald Lacey) give us someone truly despicable to root against. Raiders infuses an intriguing plot, breathtaking action, a pinch of mysticism, a helping of romance (though not too much for the tough guys in the audience), and numerous well-placed moments of comedy into one of the most well-rounded films of all time; though probably most notable is the action. I suppose that it says enough about the quality set-pieces in this film that there's an entire stunt show attraction at Universal Studios based around the film's opening scene which still wows live audiences to this day, but the giant boulder and other booby traps aren't the only armrest-grabbing moments that Raiders of the Lost Ark has to offer. The hand-to-hand combat scene on the dig-site tarmac and truck chase sequence are both fine examples of expert filmmaking in the action genre. From one of the most memorable cinematic openings of all time, right up until the film's final moments when we get to see what every movie-goer since World War 1 has wanted to see (several Nazis' heads melting and/or exploding), I can't think of a single moment of Raiders of the Lost Ark that isn't 100% worthy of all five of the stars which I've given it in my rating.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
This time around, Indy, a young Chinese orphan known as Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and a gorgeous American singer named Willy (Kate Capshaw) are on a journey to recover an ancient, magical stone from an evil kidnapping cult in order to save the inhabitants of an innocent village in India. Temple of Doom is widely regarded as the worst of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, and I was admittedly a member of that bandwagon for a long time myself. However, upon taking a closer look at Temple, I've realized the error of my ways. Lets look at the facts. The main complaint that I hear about Temple of Doom is that it "doesn't feel like the other Indiana Jones movies". The reasons for this seem to be that 1.) there are no Nazis, 2.) Indy never leaves India or visits the school where he teaches, and 3.) it doesn't involve any Christian artifacts. Honestly though, I'm fine with all of those things. To me, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still feels like it is a worthy part of the series. You've still got all the humor, interesting, mystical plot points, and romance of the other films, just with a new set of villains and a slightly different cause driving the plot. The tone is the same as it usually is, there's a sometimes lovable, sometimes annoying romantic interest, and there's a comedic sidekick. What more could you want? Action, you say? Look no further. The opening action sequence in the Chinese night club is both exciting and humorous. The mine cart chase is not only amazing to look at from a technical standpoint, but also wildly thrilling, and evokes memories of the truck chase in the previous Jones film. Then of course, there's the showdown on the rope bridge which is perhaps one of the most copied sequences in the history of action/adventure filmmaking. The premise revolving around a set of magical stones is no more unbelievable to me than the magical ark in Raiders, and though some may be offended by my saying so, I don't find a cult of people worshipping some manner of demon any more outlandish than the premise that the stories from the bible are supposedly true in the world of Indiana Jones as suggested by Raiders (and eventually The Last Crusade). All in all, I consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a slightly better film, but in my opinion, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom occupies a perfectly worthy spot beside it atop the zenith of action/adventure filmmaking.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
When Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) goes missing during one of his many quests for the biblical holy grail, Indiana Jones sets out on a quest to not only locate and save his father's life, but also to get his hands on the grail before yet another band of Nazis can manage to. Considered by many (including director Steven Spielberg himself) to be the best installment of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, The Last Crusade capped off the franchise for nearly two decades, and it did so in style. Taking more cues from the first film of the series than from the less popular Temple of Doom, Crusade once again throws Nazis into the mix, as well mystical Christian artifacts and a familiar face or two (namely Sallah [John Rhys-Davies] and Marcus Brody [Denholm Elliot]). New additions to the cast include romantic interest and evil seductress Esla Schneider (Alison Doody) and (as I previously mentioned) Sean Connery as Indiana Jones' father Henry. Connery takes the place of Jones' previous sidekicks Miriam, Short Round, and Willy as a source of camaraderie for the title character, as well as a frequent springboard for comedy. He fits perfectly into both the Indiana Jones universe and into the role of Indy's father (despite only actually being 12 years older than Ford). Once again, and not surprisingly, the action in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is nearly without rival. The opening sequence features River Phoenix as a young Indiana Jones in perhaps his first adventure, serving up equal doses of excitement, humor, and (for fans of the previous installments of the franchise) nostalgia. Not long afterward comes a speed boat chase through Venice which is (in my opinion) one of the least impressive helpings of action in the series, but still more impressive than most of the action fare available anywhere else. Most notable of the nail-biters in The Last Crusade, however, is the tank chase sequence. Lasting an incredibly long time, characters chase one another in jeeps, tanks, and on horseback, evade explosive rounds from a cannon, fight inside of, on top of, and while hanging off the edge of heavily armored vehicles moving at top speed through narrow desert canyons, and ultimately face the wrath of gravity as a runaway tank nears the edge of a cliff. This sequence is truly an experience in and of itself. Taking into account how many franchises fall apart after their first installments, it's hard to imagine that all three of the films in the original Indiana Jones trilogy can be of such an equally high level of quality, but for my money all three movies, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, occupy the same impressive league.

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