We’re told that this is our last romp with ol’ Indiana, that after “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (citywide), the bullwhip will be retired. Well, even if he’s considerably more battered than his nearest competitor, Indiana quits at the top of the heap. It’s just that the heap isn’t what it was eight years ago. It’s been almost flattered to death.
You can’t roll monstrous boulders straight at audiences any more and have a whole theater-full duck and gasp with fright--and pleasure. We may be plumb gasped out. And although Harrison Ford is still in top form and the movie is truly fun in patches, it’s a genre on the wane.
Even the sparks that fly by combining Ford with Sean Connery as his strict, scholarly father, the first Prof. Henry Jones, aren’t quite enough. What used to be thrilling is beginning to feel mechanical, and it’s a shock to find the usually watchful Spielberg and Co. making careless mistakes. (Keep your eye on the “X” that marks the spot and you’ll discover what looks like a huge continuity glitz. Uh oh.)
In Jeffrey Boam’s script, from a story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes (“The Color Purple’s” screenwriter), this last installment follows a headlong race for the Holy Grail, the life-long obsession of Indy’s estranged medievalist-father. It is Papa Jones’ exhaustive diary, a marvelously convincing prop, which contains all the clues save one to the location of the Grail.
The players are our heroes, on one hand, and those all-purpose villains, the Nazis, on the other. It seems they want the Grail as passionately as they wanted the Ark two movies ago. (Don’t Nazis take notes? Compare notes? Learn from electrifying experience?)
But first, a prologue to show us where young Indy (River Phoenix, virtually wasted) got most of his trademarks and his aversion to snakes. It’s full-tilt action in this opening quarter hour, and even with the jokey bits, like Indy and the rhinosaurus horn, it’s a chase that seems to go on forever.
It’s just the first of many. During the enfolding story of the rediscovery of father and son, there are chases by speedboat, by motorcycle, by airplane, horseback and armored tank. The Jones boys, separately or together, are bombed, strafed, chain-choked and menaced by sheets of flame. These slice-and-dice chases begin to feel less like Indiana Jones and more like James Bond.
What the frantic action constantly breaks up are the growing moments of affection between this remote father and the son who has long felt shut out his life. Indiana’s resourcefulness begins to change his father’s faintly patronizing air, and his father’s presence gives Indiana at last a chance to vent his feelings of rejection. It makes this quest story an inward one--or it’s clearly supposed to.
But the focus is on the sensurround action. Both Ford and Connery play their I-never-told-him-I-loved-him moments full-out and unabashedly, and they alternate them with good, acerbic, airclearing bits of accusation and grousing. But then someone strafes or pistol-whips them and the sentiment is diffused. In retrospect, “The Last Crusade” (rated PG-13 for intense action) becomes a blur of activity, not clearly defined peaks of emotion.
And even with more than two hours of running time to tell this story, Spielberg plunges into some scenes with such a perfunctory set-up that he catches his audience unprepared. The whole knight’s tomb sequence in Venice is so rushed that there’s no sense of real work on Indiana’s part to solve this part of the puzzle. It’s too easy, too headlong; we’re onto a major discovery only minutes after Indy and Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody have stepped off that gondola. Abruptness like this dazes and almost bewilders an audience; it certainly doesn’t let them anticipate, experience and then savor a sequence as elaborate as this one.
Boam’s screenplay, which has nice, whimsical moments (like the Venetian librarian’s book-stamping joke), needs more of them, or more great bits of action that grow from character, such as Connery’s inventiveness on the beach with his umbrella and the seagulls. “Raiders” was a plum-pudding of such indelible bits and they are sorely missed.
Back again are John Rhys-Davies’ splendidly expansive Sallah and Elliott’s quintessentially British Museum curator Brody. The film makers seem to have given up the job of finding a suitable woman for Indiana after they retired Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood from “Raiders.” But that’s no excuse for the alliances held by Alison Doody’s icy Austrian art historian, Dr. Elsa Schneider.
It’s as though, in forging a bond between father and son, the idea of any woman became impossible, so the film makers gave Indiana a clearly impossible choice. It may be in the spirit of the hero-myth, but you can’t blame audiences for wondering where the harm would be in one splendid partner to accompany the lads into the sunset, a sort of 1938 Lauren Hutton.
Best on the technical side are the far-ranging production designs of Elliot Scott and the reverberating, many-layered soundtrack by Ben Burtt. Costume designers Anthony Powell and Joanna Johnston seem to have had a field day with Dr. Schneider, who grows more hilariously like something out of “The Night Porter” with every change of clothes. She finishes like someone out of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and whether or not we’re supposed to giggle, it’s hard not to. John Williams’ music is nice, reminiscent and loud, and Douglas Slocombe’s camera work is handsome without calling undue attention to itself. While the rest of the hundreds of special effects seem flawless, the blue screen in that small-plane sequence is so far below the quality we expect from this perfectionistic group that it stands out startlingly.
By the end of all this noise and confusion, what have we learned? Possibly something more serviceable than lofty: That Harrison Ford is probably better at a blend of action, soulfulness, churlishness and charisma than any actor of his generation. And that Sean Connery is now certifiably eternal. Didn’t we know that going in? Ah well, I suppose there’s no harm in underlining it.