Indiana’s victory lap

All the great heroes are ageless. That’s part of what makes them legends. Like Greek gods, they never die and never change. Of course, that’s not true of our movie stars — and so, like it or not, when a star and the hero he plays are inseparable, sometimes our legends grow old.

Fortunately, sometimes that star is Harrison Ford and the hero is Indiana Jones, Hollywood’s most beloved errant archaeology professor. In “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” his first outing as Jones in nearly two decades, Mr. Ford seems as close to ageless as any man alive.

“What are you, like 80?” his character is asked. It ought to be a fair question for a man nearing 70 — except that he looks 45.

With an incoherent plot and a story stuffed with rote characters, “Skull” doesn’t match the best of its predecessors. Yet it serves up its share of pulpy cinematic pleasures and provides an affable last hurrah for one of the silver screen’s most beloved icons.

Director Steven Spielberg and series creator George Lucas took pains to shroud the film’s production in secrecy, waiting till just a few days before the theatrical release to screen the film in hopes of keeping the story a mystery. They needn’t have bothered; the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense.

After a long and contrived escape sequence, the story kicks off when Indy runs into a young greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Williams hands Indy a coded letter containing the location of a secret … oh, it hardly matters. All you really need to know is that before long, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s first big-screen love interest, shows up, and from there, Indy, Mutt and Marion find themselves on a quest for a mystical treasure and an ancient city with a pack of sneering Russian baddies in pursuit.

Screenwriter David Koepp, whose previous credits include scripts for “Spider-Man” and “Jurassic Park,” has penned enough blockbusters that he seems to understand that, for megabudget productions like this, the story’s almost beside the point. So Mr. Koepp, working from a story credited to Mr. Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, simply strings together a series of gonzo-action set pieces and surrounds them with cutesy banter.

Most of the back-and-forth falls flat, but the three leads, especially Mr. Ford and Miss Allen, are so much fun to watch it hardly matters. In fact, they’re best when not talking. The goofball grin Mr. Ford lets loose when he first sees Marion is alone worth the price of admission.

Sadly, the rest of the cast doesn’t make the same impression. Cate Blanchett shows up as a Russian psychic with a pointy black hairdo and a boxy gray uniform. She ends up looking like one of “Star Trek’s” Vulcans (she even performs a mind-meld of sorts on Indy) and she never registers as more than a fill-in-the-blanks villain. Ray Winstone, who plays a fellow adventurer, and John Hurt as a loopy archaeologist fare even worse, essentially relegated to roles as talking plot devices.

Still, there’s plenty of spectacle, thanks to Mr. Spielberg’s effortlessly dazzling action sequences. The director isn’t just a virtuoso; he’s a compulsive entertainer, so the intricacy of his staging is always packed with a sense of gleeful, giddy fun — no matter how little sense it makes.

If story’s not the point, tone is — and in that respect, “Skull” bears all the hallmarks of a classic Indiana Jones adventure. It has a bevy of references to earlier films as well as a host of familiar elements: a sandy palette, cargo-truck convoys, madcap motorcycle chases, angry natives, hidden temples and numerous glyph-covered passageways. Whatever the film’s flaws, it perfectly captures the Indy vibe.

Rather than develop a coherent plot, Mr. Spielberg seems content to coast on a wave of nostalgia and amused self-reference. As Indy’s outings go, this is less of a full-fledged adventure and more of a fun-filled day trip — a well-deserved victory lap for one of cinema’s greatest adventurers. For this aging hero and his adoring audience, perhaps that’s enough.

***

TITLE: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

RATING: PG-13 (Fantasy violence, mild language)

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