Old action heroes never die – at least, not while there's money to be made from sequels. While Jason Bourne has led the way for thrillers in the 21st century, the rest of the big names in this genre all appear to be men who first appeared on screen over two decades ago, with the ravages of age proving to be no barrier for characters whose death-defying antics remain an irresistible cinematic proposition. In the past year John McClane has pulled on his vest once more, and John Rambo has returned from exile, but the one we were all waiting for was Dr Henry Jones Jr., the intrepid archaeologist whose fedora, whip and rugged charm made him one of the most iconic film characters of all time. Nineteen years after The Last Crusade (will that now be re-titled The Penultimate Crusade?) Harrison Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones, in a film that has been the subject of much speculation and a sense of anticipation that has been building for a very long time.
There's something inherently exciting about Indiana Jones, and I felt a tangible tingle of joy right at the start of this fourth instalment, as the old-style Paramount logo faded into a molehill, just as it faded into a mountain before Raiders of the Lost Ark. Throughout Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Steven Spielberg drops in dozens of such touches that inspire a little nostalgic thrill, reminding us of the things we've loved about this series to date, but it has the effect of making this fourth instalment feel like a shadow of its predecessors. It was probably inevitable that a new Indiana Jones film, coming two decades after the last, would fail to match the energy and invention of the trilogy, but the most disappointing aspect of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the fact that it fails in the most basic, avoidable ways.
The new film takes place in 1957, allowing Spielberg, George Lucas and David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay) to place their main character in new and unfamiliar territory. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens with Elvis Presley on the soundtrack and the story allows the filmmakers to reference many of the major concerns of the day; namely the Red Scare, the nuclear race and – disastrously – the existence of alien life. All of these themes are touched on within the lively opening half hour, with Indy once again on the trail of a priceless artefact that would have terrible repercussions were it to fall into the wrong hands. In this instance, the wrong hands are tucked inside the leather gloves of Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, giving a weird performance that just about works), a sword-wielding Soviet psychic with a Louise Brooks bob. Their first encounter takes place inside Area 51, where Spalko has ordered Indy to locate the prized possession, and it subsequently takes them to Peru, to a lost city that acts as the rightful resting place of the titular skull. At some point along the way, the picture just stops working.
I'm not sure where exactly Kingdom of the Crystal Skull goes wrong, but after maintaining a lively pace in its opening hour the film seems increasingly unsure of itself and the story turns into a choppy, implausible affair. That opening hour is a blast, though. Spielberg is without peer when it comes to this kind of action, and he directs Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's set-pieces with the kind of wit and clear-eyed staging that distinguishes his best work. In a scene that's probably the film's highlight, Indy stumbles on to a nuclear testing facility just as the countdown is commencing. His panicky attempt to survive the blast is both chilling and funny, and the sequence ends on a strange, breathtaking image of the hero silhouetted against a mushroom cloud. The film never tops that sequence because it refuses to push Jones into any directions as unlikely or daring as that one, instead falling into a standard quest narrative that mimics Raiders and Crusade beat for beat.
Although the film drags badly around the midpoint it does receive a welcome boost from Karen Allen, returning here as Marion Ravenwood, the feisty love interest from Raiders. The first scene in which he lays eyes on her is a delight, and she has one or two nice moments, but for most of the film's second half she's given nothing to do. Even Spielberg seems to forget about her during an overextended jungle chase: one minute she's driving a car, the next she's nowhere to be seen until she suddenly reappears at the sequence's end. A similar fate befalls Ray Winstone, whose role is appallingly written, and John Hurt's loony-tunes cameo is tiresome. The one supporting character who does get a proper taste of the action is Marion's son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), and while I feared the worst when he first appeared – posing, embarrassingly, as Marlon Brando in The Wild One – he actually acquits himself well, with his presence lending the film some of the father/son dynamic that we saw in The last Crusade.
Of course, Indiana Jones is on the other side of that relationship now, and while the film makes a couple of early cracks about his advancing years (escaping from a tight spot "won't be as easy as it used to be" he admits), he's mostly just the same old Indiana. This probably the character people want to see – and Ford wears the role like a comfortable suit – but the sprightliness and dexterity he displays in running away from enemy gunfire, leaping from one vehicle to another, or taking a beating from a muscular Russian soldier makes his character feel slightly less real than he did in the previous films. There's no sense that he or any of his entourage is in grave danger here, which lessens the tension considerably, and the film feels like it's simply going through the motions as it places them in dangerous situations that they then slip away from with disappointing ease.
For the most part, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's biggest crimes are its sloppy storytelling, over-reliance on in-jokes and underwritten characters, but in the final twenty minutes it takes a sudden left turn and simply destroys itself. There are so many logical holes in the film's climactic scenes I simply don't know where to start, but the basic presence of extra-terrestrial life in an Indiana Jones film just feels wrong somehow. This might sound like an odd statement – considering I bought the acts of divine intervention that ended the first and third films – but this CGI-dominated sequence is silly, unimaginative and borderline incomprehensible. For all of its nostalgia and occasional flashes of the old genius, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is ultimately exposed for exactly what it is – a deeply unnecessary retread of a series that already found a perfect conclusion at the end of the third film. This addition to the trilogy adds nothing to the character and only subtracts from our warm memories; and the frequent unsubtle hints that point to Mutt as Indy's potential successor in future movies left me with a heavy heart. Everybody loves Indiana Jones, but perhaps the lesson we should take from his continuing adventures is that it's often a bad idea to start digging up the past.