Indiana Jones was born on a beach; quite literally, he was the result of a need to escape for his producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg. A new kind of hero who was the old kind of hero, and just as their instincts had proven right on films as different as Star Wars and Jaws, so Indiana Jones came to be a huge hit; a wry, warm antidote to the dark anti-heroes of the ’70s.
After the relatively quick one-two-three of the original trilogy, there then came the massive hiatus that brings us, after 19 long years, to the latest. The delay caused trepidation among the fans but, though there'll be those who disagree, the finished, and most likely final, instalment in the Indy saga is a minor triumph plucked from the jaws of disappointment. Indy is older, the old chemistry takes some time to reconfigure fully, and the thrill of where Indy might take us in a globe made smaller by the worldwide web and cheap airline travel has diminished. But Spielberg hasn't diluted the integrity of his keynote character. Indy IV preserves Jones' core credentials, celebrating his intelligence, his urbanity and his stubborn, scholarly kick-arse cool.
The story, too, cleaves close to the usual format: 1) the pulse-racing opening scenario, 2) the back-to-Marshall-College pause for breath, 3) the accidental treasure trail – because Indy is never so vulgar as to go looking for riches on purpose – and 4) the jackpot final highway, an exciting 45-minute rollercoaster that may test your credulity but never your attention span. The difference, though, is that – as promised – Spielberg has changed his palette, taking Indy from 1938 to 1957 in real time and switching the gaudy, Republic serial-inspired glow of the original movies for a beautiful, pastel-hued ’50s look.
Cast-wise, it's impeccable, but here's where the debits creep in. Though it seems on page to be an ensemble piece, Indy 4 is a crowded place where Jones comes first and everyone else follows. The upside of this is that Cate Blanchett and the excellent LaBeouf have a fantastic opportunity to play villain and sidekick respectively. The downside is that great character actors such as Ray Winstone and John Hurt don't have anything to play except hamstrung expositional roles. And similarly, with such great actors, it's a shame that the added effects don't always match what's actually there: as Peter Jackson proved with the wayward dinosaur chase in King Kong, CG spectacle can detract if there's no valid danger, and though there are squirmy scenes, Indy 4 struggles to find its peril level.
But the question is whether this is a real Indy movie, and the answer is a resounding yes. At 65, Harrison Ford isn't the whippersnapper he was, and maybe the opening athletic chase scene is a little too much to expect from him, but when he's punching big, bad Russkies on the nose, Ford hits the spot in more ways than one. He may be a little off on some of his comic timing, and the rekindled-romance subplot won't work for younger viewers – and, hey, neither will the “I like Ike” gag – but this is Indy as back in our world as he'll ever be. It's hard to conceive of another contemporary film that would please so many people today, but that's what Indiana Jones movies always did and what this one does right now. It won't change your life but, if you're in the right frame of mind, it will change your mood: you might wince, you might groan, you might beg to differ on the big, silly climax, but you'll never stop smiling. Think of Indy as an escape, which is all he was ever meant to be, and all he was ever really meant to help us do.