The question fomented by the new Indiana Jones film was whether or not, nineteen years after the last one, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg still “have it.” Which of course begs the question of whether or not they ever did “have it.” In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably confess that I saw the other three Indiana Jones films once each, and that if I were again to run into one of them when channel-surfing I would keep right on surfing to the next channel. (Whereas if, for instance, I were to run into one of the first four or five Bond films with Sean Connery, regardless of how many times I had seen it, I would stop and watch awhile.) Further, before the recent tsunami of publicity to refresh my memory, I would have had to think hard even to come up with the titles of the second two Joneses. I’m guessing that by August or thereabouts I will need to think hard to come up with the title of the new one, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the ungainliest title to date. Admittedly the adventuring archaeologist, known familiarly if not affectionately as Indy (getting a promotional dividend by timing his reappearance for the same weekend as the Indy 500), holds a position as a Cultural Icon, but the same could be said, free from claims of artistic worth, for Freddy Krueger, Rambo, and the Marlboro Man. Like them, Indy’s something of a joke; the chief difference is, he always knew it. He has taken no place in my personal pantheon.
Having got all that off my chest, I can go on to give an affirmative answer to the preliminary question. Whatever the “it” was that Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg once had together, they more or less still “have.” Moviegoers who valued “it” in the past will be pretty near guaranteed to value “it” now. Ford, with his big-cat purr of a voice, remains an amiable fellow; and if he’s a bit jowlier beneath that crumpled face (like a wadded-up piece of paper retrieved from the wastebasket and mostly smoothed out again), and if he occasionally throws in a disarming grumble or groan in recognition of his advancing years, he nonetheless keeps pace with the physical action, or else his director cleverly covers for him during it, so that he shows no such signs of wear and tear as would demand any added suspension of disbelief beyond the several tons suspended already in the prior adventures. Shia LaBeouf is an amiable fellow also, as Younger Generation actors go, and his introduction on screen as a carbon copy of Brando in The Wild One proves to be only a time marker (mid-Fifties) and not a clue to his character. I would not be giving away any big secrets by noting that his revealed relationship to the hero situates him well for any further sequel or even for a solo spin-off. For the rest, Cate Blanchett, with a Louise Brooks bob, a ramrod spine, and a ticklesome Iron Curtain accent, is easily the most entertaining villain in the series, “Stalin’s fair-haired girl” in quest of the ultimate Commie weapon: mind-control. (In honesty, I barely recollect any other villains in the series.) John Hurt and Ray Winstone are serviceable sidekicks of differing degrees of loyalty. And Karen Allen, excavated from Raiders of the Lost Ark for the last act, supplies an unexpected bonus insofar as the filmmaker seems, with her, to be going for something that vaguely resembles — could it be? — yes, yes, it truly appears to be — vaguely — an emotion!
Spielberg, for his part, eager to show that Munich burned no bridges, any more than Schindler’s List or Amistad burned any, is still a superior technician. Superior, that is to say, to Michael Bay, Simon West, Brett Ratner, Roland Emmerich, Renny Harlin, John McTiernan, Jon Turteltaub, among other wannabes. Everything dovetails sleekly. The Paramount Mountain dissolves to the mound of a prairie dog, and the new period setting is emphatically established through the car radio of a passing hot rod (Presley’s “Hound Dog”), and the entrance of the title character (hat first) is flatteringly momentous, and, much later, the nocturnal visit to a mountaintop Peruvian graveyard (a high point of a sort) showcases state-of-the-art cobwebs and mummies, and the relentless action scenes are always impressive in their engineering while never being in the least believable or involving. (A fencing bout conducted in side-by-side jeeps at top speed unfailingly focusses our attention on the filmmaker rather than on the fencers.) In the end — in the accumulation — the action grows more than a little tedious. Spielberg’s technique is superior not only to others’ technique but also to his own taste. A good long time, needless to stress, has gone by since the previous Indy adventure, and the new one can’t be content to try to top just that one. It has to try to top, in addition, The Da Vinci Code, the National Treasure hunts, the Lara Croft adventures, et al. With a plot that links Roswell, New Mexico, to the Erich von Däniken theory of evolution, Spielberg keeps pace in that race as well. To say so is no great compliment.
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Although the vagaries of foreign-film distribution make it difficult to keep tabs, Roman de Gare demonstrates that Claude Lelouch, too, at age seventy, still has a lot of what he once had. And he had a lot more to begin with: flexibility; range; balance; discretion; heady dialogue; a Rohmer-esque patience with chitchat; a Sagan-ian intoxication with movement and speed; a fluency and a buoyancy that survive even his most overambitious and overextended, yet never overproduced, projects; a trailblazing thematic fixation (long before it was trendy) on the workings of fortune and fate; a stubborn resistance to fad and fashion; an authentic romanticism and optimism, undimmed by rueful realities; an abiding empathy with the underdog and the outsider; a hospitable climate for actors; an appreciation of the varieties of feminine beauty; a roving eye for place; a delicate sense of color; as literal a caméra-stylo (a camera-pen), as portable and manipulable, as anyone ever wielded. To cut this short: he is, or can be, a fully rounded filmmaker; and Roman de Gare, proceeding into a second week at the Hillcrest, shows him off at about 300 degrees of his maximum circumference. Fundamentally a thriller, to do with the chance encounter of two strangers at a highway rest stop and the best-selling novel that results from the encounter, it is more scrupulously plotted than his norm (one of his habitual laxities), negotiating a course of tricky twists and turns without feeling forced or underhanded. Dominique Pinon, generally cast for his dentureless funny looks, is led to new dimensions of humanity as one of the strangers; and as the other, Audrey Dana, a fresh face if not an especially young one, quite an expressive and complicated face, is a bountiful discovery. Fanny Ardant as the best-selling novelist, notwithstanding her assortment of wigs, comes as no surprise. She comes as a sure thing.