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Raiders of the Past

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The latest "Indiana Jones" adventure has all the ingredients expected from the well-known '80s franchise (not necessarily how you might remember them, though): egotistically self-deluded villains (the producer and director), lustful groping for treasure (their motivation for making the movie), unfathomable mysteries (the movie itself) and the hero who saves the day in the end (merciful closing credits).

Oh, and there are chase sequences -- lots of goofy chase sequences. Because goofy chase sequences were cool in the '80s.

On a quest to return (not capture?) a sacred artifact to its rightful home in the Amazon, there are chases on a military vehicle, motorcycle, rocket, jungle vine, waterfall and tree. There's even a chase down a receding flight of stairs that looks, like a lot of the movie, embarrassingly more "Tomb Raider" than "Raiders." Who can say why screenwriter David Koepp left out airplanes, hot-air balloons, flying carpets and roller skates?

Also left out: sex, romance, intrigue, adventure, suspense and humor, except for the corniest variety.

George Lucas, in a lengthy and exhaustive article on the production in February's Vanity Fair, defended the picture against the phantom menace of its potential detractors while defaming other contemporary action movies as comparatively unrealistic. "In 'Indiana Jones,'" the article quotes him as saying, "we stay just this side of it."

Just this side, eh? If you believe that, a certain president and vice president would like to inform you we are just this side of spending too much money on Iraq. In a typical just-this-side-of-it moment, newcomer Shia LaBeouf, playing an upstart acquaintance of one of Indy's colleagues, follows a battalion of monkeys as he soars through the trees like Tarzan. The monkeys, helpfully enough, attack the pursuing Russians, who then fall prey to a swarm of ferocious man-eating ants.

You could more easily argue that Lucas and Steven Spielberg, obsessively trying to recapture their glory days, have kept themselves just this side of complete insanity. The most prominent sensation throughout "Indiana Jones 4" is that it's a totally ego-driven, anodyne, hollow shell of the original. To argue, as Lucas has repeatedly, that Ford at 65 isn't too old for the part is disingenuous at best. Calculating is more like it.

The big question is why these filmmakers, after revolutionizing Hollywood with non-star action vehicles, feel the need to retread old territory with aging icons. The only answer that consistently comes to mind watching "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," aside from greed and vanity, is complete and utter delusion. Armed with their millions, Lucas and Spielberg appear to be immune to the reality checks that govern the rest of us. They've gone over to the dark side of self-reliance and are so preoccupied with their own opinions they've started to ignore their audience.

Hence the feeling of overkill and pointlessness that pervades "Kingdom," like the ham-fisted way Spielberg demonstrates the shift in period to the '50s. Teens race in a jalopy (never mind in the middle of the desert near a top-secret military base). LaBeouf arrives on a motorcycle like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." Indy decodes a letter from a fellow archaeologist in a diner. Similarly, the shift in decades allows the director to lurch into one of his other favorite genres — alien invasion. That's right, the new movie could have been called "Indiana Jones and the Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Depressingly, when an element in "Kingdom" isn't forced, it feels obligatory and sloppy, like the re-inclusion of Marion, ignominiously reprised by Karen Allen. But "Kingdom" pitches wildly, and there are also random oddities, like the repeated cuts to CGI prairie dogs. Some people in the theater let out a squeal during one of these, but I couldn't tell if it was because they loved prairie dogs, or I'd missed some esoteric reference to one of Spielberg's other films. Or Lucas'. But does it really matter?

I was around 7 or 8 when "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out and, though I can't be sure, I think I thought it was great. I'm more sure, watching it today, that while it's leagues above the new one, I was supposed to like it. It was aimed squarely at my generation. Are the 7-year-olds today so sophisticated they will get references to the movies of their forebears? Are they supposed to feel nostalgic about supporting characters who show up after a two-movie absence? Doubtful. More likely, the spoiled brats who matter to "Kingdom" are not the ones in the audience. (PG-13) 123 min. S



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