Stars: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Sean Connery, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot, River Phoenix, Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf
Director: Steven Spielberg
Released by Paramount
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
At the very beginning of Raiders of The Lost Ark, Spielberg strikes a bargain with you. In those first few moments in the jungle and then the caves Indiana Jones faces insurmountable peril and certain death. It comes in the shape of hidden spears and darts that suddenly shoot out at him. A huge boulder hurtles down through the cave threatening to crush him at any moment. He is chased by a mob of angry natives. Throughout all of this he remains cool and always manages to get out by the skin of his teeth. This is a great adventure and if you’ll just suspend your disbelief and go with it, you’ll have an incredible time. After that thrilling opening Steven Spielberg made good on his promise and delivered one of the greatest adventure films in modern times. We also got to see an enduring character played to perfection by Harrison Ford. To be sure this is the stuff of the serial films that used to accompany the main features in the thirties and forties. Spy Smasher, Batman, The Green Hornet, Commander Cody, Flash Gordon, Zorro, Rocket Man and many more would thrill audiences a chapter at a time. Each chapter would end in a cliffhanger that the hero would escape narrowly in the next installment. Spielberg has consistently been aware of the traditions and history of the field he works in. Though Raiders succeeds wonderfully as a modern day action film, there are continual nods of the dusty fedora to earlier motion pictures.
Indiana Jones is an archaeologist. He is also a history professor. His students love him including a pretty girl in the front row who closes her eyes to reveal that she has written “love” and “you” on each lid. He’s also a world-class adventurer that travels the globe in search of ancient artifacts to bring back to Denholm Elliott who is a cross between a museum curator with a helluva big budget and James Bond’s boss or better yet Leo G. Carroll in The Man From Uncle. The action starts in 1936 with the film showcasing a remarkable feel for the period. Even the camera movements have a distinct flavor of that time with the crane movements and characters suddenly entering from the extreme foreground. The action scenes, and there are plenty of them are all crackerjack. Much of the style seems more than a tip of the hat to a famous stuntman named Yakima Canut. He worked on many westerns. The classic move of jumping onto the moving stagecoach and leap frogging up to the lead horse to slow it down was his. Perhaps his signature move was dropping off one side of a moving stagecoach and working hand over hand beneath the coach to pull himself up the other side. We see this same move done with a Nazi truck and it’s just as amazing to see now. Raiders succeeds at every level including the fabulous casting. The nazi villains are very creepy.
Karen Allen’s tough but cute sidekick is adorable. When she first sees Indy she smacks him in the face. John Rhys-Davies plays a larger than life contact in Cairo who can get you anything and also sings Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. Indy’s quest is the ancient Ark of the Covenant. He must get it before the Nazis can claim it and unleash its power for their own nefarious purposes. When we see the Ark open with a cataclysmic blast of energy, there will be more than a few hardcore film fans that will recall the ending of Kiss Me Deadly. This is a first class adventure film at every level.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
In the second installment the formula goes in another direction taking it off track. Gone are the Nazis as villains. The film owes much more to Gunga Din than the matinee serials that fueled the first one. Things start off in 1935 in Shanghai with Kate Capshaw doing a Busby Berkley style production number over the opening credits. There is quite a bit of business in the nightclub over some diamond that Indy found and the payment he is owed by a well-dressed group of Chinese mobsters. The entire nightclub erupts into choreographed bedlam. The action feels needlessly complicated. The rhythm feels off, too. The whole sequence seems to suffer from the kind of excess that plagued his 1979 film, 1941. Once the film gets through some drama in an Indian village and concerns itself with the Thuggee cult of Kali followers we are treated to a thrilling adventure that is slightly darker than Raiders but still delivers some top-notch actions scenes and huge amounts of period villains. Amirsh Puri as Mali the leader of the cult is suitably sinister and looks frighteningly horrific in the excellent make-up. All of the cult members sport various types of incredible make up which looks terrific in this new Blu-Ray.
That second half is a well-done thrill ride. What holds things down and in fact upsets the Indy Jones apple cart is that the sidekicks he has for this one fall short of the mark. Kate Capshaw’s character, Willie is written as a screaming whining nuisance. She is just not believable as the kind of woman that Indy would work with. Further Capshaw brings nothing to the part that drives the film. Indy is also saddled with a young kid named Short Round. Perhaps if the kid were more streety, more of a hustler he would have fit in better. The two of them drag things down. Still there is an undeniable tension and compelling spookiness to the thuggee cult members with their human sacrifices. The underground temple and mines look spectacular. Temple of Doom is not the usual Indy tale, but the last half is well worth the wait. It improves a lot in the context of the others
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
This may be the most satisfying of the bunch. This one takes on the origin and legacy of Indiana Jones, gives us background to flesh out his character and then sends him on an exciting journey to rival the first one, but this time his sidekick is his father. Who is whose sidekick now? In a neat prologue with River Pheonix as a young Indy on what may indeed be his first quest we find out where he got the hat, the whip and what drives him. It’s a marvelous way to kick start the film. Jones is up against the Nazis again. This time he is searching for the ultimate quest, the Holy Grail. Alison Doody as Dr. Elsa Schneider spearheads the Nazis’ attempt to get the prized artifact. She first goes after the reigning expert on the grail and when that meets a dead end, Indy gets roped into rescuing the professor. That first professor turns out to be Indy’s father Henry Jones played beautifully by Sean Connery. Both father and son get doubled crossed by Elsa in more ways that one.
It’s a nice touch that Henry Jones has a hat, too albeit a rather frumpy one. Instead of a whip he carries an umbrella, which comes in very handy in one predicament. The arguments between them all dissipate as they make a very enjoyable team. Connery brings in just enough eccentricity to flavor the character without ever making him seem addled or in over his head. Ever the film buff, Spielberg brings in hints of the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road To movies as well as a spinning wall gag that could have easily come from any number of Abbott & Costello films. One of the things about this series that is so endearing is the combination of old school and modern sensibilities. After the tremendous and triumphant battle at the end it is so fitting to have Indy, his father and their two companions literally ride off into the sunset as Sallah chortles a belly laugh.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Perhaps the line between that last one and this one was stretched a bit too thin. This is a fun and enjoyable film though a few of the character bits and references feel slightly forced. That’s a small quibble but after the immensely satisfying Last Crusade it’s justified. In this outing Indy joins up with his old flame Marion Ravenwood and finds his son. Shia LaBeouf as Ed Sullivan used to say, for you youngsters is cast as Mutt Williams. The film is set in the McCarthy era fifties leaving Shia to channel Marlon Brando’s The Wild One as the young punk. The correlations between father and son here are not as compelling as the ones between son and father in the last one.
Indiana Jones’ famous fedora makes a great entrance before he does. Kudos to the costumer for starting Harrison Ford out with a respectable conservative looking gray chapeau only to let him wear a very snazzy brown one at the end of the film. Cate Blanchett does a very nice job as the rapier wielding Nazi with echoes of Rosa Kleb hinted ever so slightly. John Hurt adds a touch of class in his role as the beleaguered explorer Ox. The action scenes are thrilling as usual. The old western movie gimmick of having one rider jump from horse to horse or stagecoach is still very much alive here as Mutt jumps from one jeep to a truck and back as he duels with Cate Blanchett. When he is straddled between the two vehicles and still battling away with the sword the image is right out of all those old Lone Ranger and Tom Mix films, yet updated with a wicked grin.
The Complete Adventures
Watching these back to back improves each of them quite a bit. It is a comforting image to see that cartoon plane flying over the maps following the red line from one romantic city to another mystical locale. Each film opens with that familiar Paramount mountain logo that gets transformed into the first sequence of each adventure. Even though there may be an inconsistency particularly in Temple of Doom, Indy’s character always remains true. His hat, whip, satchel and beat up leather jacket are always there. This is a tremendous series whose total sum is greater than its parts. To have these packed altogether into a smart little box that feels just like the heft of Indy’s travel diary is fitting. The box opens just like pages of a book with each film fitting snuggly into its own slot. The interior is coated with a very glossy stock to prevent scratching. It’s a very handsome looking package.
All the films are 2.35:1 and look very nice. Raiders has some soft spots due to the more colorful theatrical lighting in some scenes. When Belloq and Indy meet at an outside table to sort out their loyalties the faces loose some of the strong definition they had. That was about the only instance that stood out, in all four films. Temple of Doom treats those vast interior caves and mines like a prized canvas. Black levels are deep and ink jet dark. Colors are spectacular. The make-up on the thuggees’ faces is a wonder to behold. There is a multitude of color and intricate patterns, all of which are clearly visible. Last Crusade is a joy from start to finish with strong facial tones and gorgeous scenery. The much more recent Crystal Skull is very well done.
Audio – French, Spanish
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, French, Portuguese, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish, English and Portuguese 2.0 Dolby Digital, Subtitles are offered in French, Spanish, Portuguese and English SDH. The music and effects are very well done throughout the entire set. There is excellent separation in John Williams scores. You can make out individual instruments. The matching of various elements of the orchestra comes through loud and clear. Effects give a nice rumble when called for. The occasional old school rick-a-shay gunshot can be heard, too.
Presented in English with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
All of these extras get their own separate disc. The New ones are: On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark, From Jungle to Desert and From Adventure to Legend. There is also a boatload devoted to each film that have been carried over from the previous editions except for The making of Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 which makes it’s disc debut here. The Crystal Skull ones are in HD. The Making of (all four films), Behind The Scenes, Stunts, Sound, Music, Light and Magic of Indiana Jones, Raiders: The Melting Face, Creepy Crawlers, Travel with Indiana, Indy’s Women, Friends and Enemies, and the HD ones from Crystal Skull – Iconic Props, Effects, and Adventures in Post Production.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movies – Raiders – Classic, Temple of Doom – Good
Last Crusade – Excellent, Crystal Skull – Good