Everything! I just watched it again last night in prep for the Indiana Jones nerdathon that will accompany the release of the 4th movie, Indiana Jones and the Worst Title Since Phantom Menace, this Thursday. And it’s just as thrilling and enjoyable as when I first saw it as an 11-year old goober on the edge of my seat.
Besides being one of the best action-adventure movies ever made, with one set piece after another, getting topped each time, it’s also got great slapstick comedy and introduced one of film’s enduring characters. That’s right, Karen Allen.
Sure, she’d been in that legendary college film Animal House, and that nostalgic memoir of early 60’s city life The Wanderers, but she’ll always be immortalized as the feisty Marion Ravenscroft, daughter of Indiana Jones’s mentor. Abner Ravenscroft, if you forgot, was the original seeker of the Ark of the Covenant and the archaeologist who found the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, instrumental in locating the lost Ark. We never find out how he died, but I imagine that creepy Nazi guy, Toht, whose name I know only because it was on the action figure package, tortured him to death with that funky coat hanger he had.
Oddly enough that joke was snatched from a James Bond movie, but it works so well that we allow Lucas and Spielberg the discretion. Unlike Temple of Doom, where we see Indy in a white tux bargaining with Chinese gangsters and wonder where the hell his fedora is. I’ll get to that tomorrow; I was a Temple of Doom apologist for a while, and I still think it’s a good movie; it’s just “the worst” in a great bunch. And hopefully it will remain at the bottom, come Thursday.
Raiders works so well partly because there is very little exposition, except when necessary. We see a man with a whip, a gun and a hat guided into a cave; he bypasses some traps with aplomb, gets cocky, and then the real fun starts as he stumbles through them all at breakneck speed to get out of the collapsing ruins, with each trap getting exponentially worse. Alfred Molina, probably best known now as Doc Oc from Spider-Man 2, played the funny-looking guide who utters the immortal line, “toss me the idol, I throw you the whip!” and it’s amusing now to watch him, but he was perfectly cast.
We meet the villain soon after, with no introduction; the dialogue deftly speaks of the past between the two men and how their morals differ. Then we’re back at Marshall college, where Indy is Dr. Jones, the professor whom girls swoon over and boys admire. No time is wasted; we meet Brody, played by Denholm Elliot, who will be sorely missed from the new movie; he died of AIDS a few years after Last Crusade. He did a wonderful comic turn in that movie, but in Raiders he’s the straight man (no pun intended) and great as always.
Government men arrive to advance the plot- something about Nazis seeking Biblical artifacts- and Indy is off to meet the plucky Marion, seeking the medallion her father discovered. She’s introduced in the middle of a drinking contest, that she wins handily; she runs a ramshackle tavern in Nepal for sherpas, a fitting place for a pulp adventure. They both lie to each other and only get thrown together when the nefarious Nazi Toht shows up. What perfect casting there- Brit Ronald Lacey looked like a mishmash of every Japanese and German monster in the Allied propaganda posters had a redheaded stepchild and beat them with a creepy stick night and day. He steals every scene he’s in and sells it back to us. They shoot up the bar in a brutal and bloody gunfight with men on fire, bright red fake blood spurting from people’s heads, and guns that change from revolvers to Colt .45’s from one shot to another, but it’s so much fun we don’t even care.
From there it’s off to Cairo where we meet another great stock character, Sallah the digger and fixer, played so charmingly by John Rhys-Davies. The film is so full of memorable scenes that I have to skip them; you know them already, or if not, you should go see them for yourself! We get a famous chase and fight through a bazaar, where we learn you don’t bring a sword to a gunfight, and soon they’re sneaking amongst the Nazis in the ruins to find that Ark in the title.
But name another movie whose set pieces come so perfectly paced. An escape from a tomb full of snakes; a bare-knuckle brawl with a Max Schmeling clone underneath a runaway flying wing and a tanker truck ready to explode; a chase up to, into, under and over an Army truck in a caravan, then onto a submarine to a deserted island. It’s hard to believe it’s all in one movie, when you think back on it. Other movies often try to cram so much in, but it rarely works. Casino Royale is the most recent one in memory.
And Lucas and Spielberg manage to cap it all with an incredible ending full of top-notch and still believable special effects, showing us the power of the Ark without explaining a damn thing about it. I watched the ending three times last night, sometimes in slow-motion, and it holds up to modern effects in believability. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be done mostly with stunts and traditional effects. About 30% will be CG, and Spielberg (unlike Lucas) has a good eye for when computers are necessary. It’s also being done on film and not digital; the original stunt coordinator and cinematographer are busy or retired, but the new ones studied Doug Slocombe’s work to mimic the look of the original films. That all speaks well for the new (and most likely final) entry.
The new movie also has … Karen Allen! She was terrific in the underrated Starman, another nerd favorite, but semi-retired to raise kids and knit sweaters in recent years. It’s good to see her in a “big” movie again. (Starman will be an 80’s movie of the week sometime soon, Jenny Hayden). She was at Cannes when the movie premiered this week, looking as feisty as ever. Alongside another fave actress of mine, Cate Blanchett, who plays the Ninotchka-esque Soviet villain. Firecracker may get jealous when we go see it Thursday…
Raiders’ final shot of the huge warehouse full of who-knows-what is one of the most famous endings in film history. How can you top something like that? The other sequels certainly didn’t. I don’t think this one will either, but I imagine it will be a heartfelt and satisfying capper to one of the most beloved series in cinema. When I read that they had 5 films planned, part of me wishes I could go back to the 90’s and smack Spielberg and Lucas around. Did Jurassic Park need a sequel?
Then again that was Spielberg’s sappiest era, when he was putting walkie talkies in E.T., and Lucas was dreaming up the cheese-fest of the prequels. Maybe they weren’t ready to make another Indy movie then; I hope they are now, because if Indiana Jones and the Unwieldy Title is more Temple of Doom than Raiders, I will transform into The Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons and cry out “from hell’s heart I stab at thee!” from my seat before I shuffle out of the theater muttering every profanity imaginable.
Here’s hoping Shia LaBeouf tones it down a bit for Indy 4… I bet Mr. Ford would’ve smacked the shit out of him otherwise.