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‘Same old, same old’ is a good thing for ‘Crystal Skull’

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Say it aloud. The very title causes the pulse to quicken, if you, like me, are a lover of pulp fiction. What I want is goofy action — lots of it. I want man-eating ants, sword fights between two people balanced on the backs of speeding jeeps, subterranean caverns of gold, vicious femme fatales, plunges down three waterfalls in a row, and the explanation for flying saucers. And throw in lots of monkeys.

The Indiana Jones movies were directed by Steven Spielberg and written by George Lucas and a small army of screenwriters, but they exist in a universe of their own. All you can do is compare one to the other three. And even then, what will it get you? If you eat four pounds of sausage, how do you choose which pound tasted the best? Well, the first one, of course, and then there’s a steady drop-off of interest. That’s why no Indy adventure can match "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). But if "Crystal Skull" (or "Temple of Doom" from 1984 or "Last Crusade" from 1989) had come first in the series, who knows how much fresher it might have seemed? True, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" stands alone as an action masterpiece, but after that the series is compelled to be, in the words of Indiana himself, "same old same old." Yes, but that’s what I want it to be.

"Crystal Skull" even dusts off the Russians, so severely underexploited in recent years, as the bad guys. Up against them, Indiana Jones is once again played by Harrison Ford, who is now 65 but looks a lot like he did at 55 or 46, which is how old he was when he made "Last Crusade." He and his sidekick, Mac McHale (Ray Winstone), are taken by the cool, contemptuous Soviet uber-villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) to a cavernous warehouse to seek out a crate he saw there years ago. The contents of the crate are hyper-magnetic (lord, I love this stuff) and betray themselves when Indy throws a handful of gunpowder into the air.

In ways too labyrinthine to describe, the crate leads Indy, Mac, Irina and the Russians far up the Amazon. Along the way they’ve gathered Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s girlfriend from the first film, and a young biker named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who is always combing his ducktail haircut. They also acquire Professor Oxley (John Hurt), elderly colleague from the University of Chicago, whose function is to read all the necessary languages, know all the necessary background and explain everything.

What happens in South America is explained by the need to create (1) sensational chase sequences and (2) awe-inspiring spectacles.

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All leads to the discovery of a subterranean chamber beneath an ancient pyramid, where they find an ancient city made of gold and containing ... but wait, I forgot to tell you they found a crystal skull in a crypt. Well, sir, it’s one of 13 crystal skulls, and the other 12 are in that chamber. When the set is complete, amazing events take place. Professor Oxley carries the 13th skull for most of the time, and finds it repels man-eating ants. It also represents one-thirteenth of all knowledge about everything, leading Irina to utter the orgasmic words, "I want ... to know!"

What is the function of the chamber? "It’s a portal — to another dimension!" Oxley says. Indy is sensible: "I don’t think we wanna go that way." It is astonishing that the protagonists aren’t all killed 20 or 30 times, although Irnia will become The Woman Who Knew Too Much. At his advanced age, Prof. Oxley tirelessly jumps between vehicles, survives fire and flood and falling from great heights, and would win on "American Gladiator."

Now what else can I tell you, apart from mentioning the blinking red digital countdown, and the moving red line tracing a journey on a map? I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you.

Classified: PG-13 (adventure violence and scary images). Rating: Three and a half stars.

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