Movies — unlike real life — give us a taste of life as we’d like it: Dashing heroes, beautiful heroines. That idea bites the dust as the sequels and prequels and wrinkquels downgrade our notions of dashing and beautiful. Some movie franchises stay fresh, despite many years between installments. Bruce Willis first played Detective John McClane in 1988’s Die Hard. The fourth version of his story Live Free or Die Hard was a solid hit ($134 million box office) in 2007. Now, an even older franchise gives it one more try: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford embodied nearly everyone’s idea of the dashing movie hero. Is that still the case? That’s our Smackdown!: Can Indiana Ford still bring it as well as Bruce McClane after four movies — or is this just more empty geriatric heroics?
In 1981, audiences first met Henry “Indiana” Jones as an adventurous academic. Now, he’s a professor at Marshall College and can’t avoid trouble. It’s the height of the Cold War and Indy has been let go after getting mixed up with some Russkies at Area 51 during an above-ground nuclear test. Indy’s taking a train right out of the movie when young Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) rolls into the station astride a motorcycle. From this encounter an adventure takes them to Peru, where Indiana’s mentor Professor Oxley (John Hurt) and Mutt’s mom, Marion (Karen Allen) have been taken prisoner. Central to the action is a legendary crystal skull Oxley found in the jungle. The Russians want it to rule the world, and Indy wants to know if that skull has a connection to a “lost city of gold.” Mutt just wants his mom and the professor safely back. Along the way director Steven Spielberg stages a series of chases and near-escapes the equal of anything featured in the earlier Indiana Jones movies. By the end of Crystal Skull screenwriter David Koepp lets you know Indiana Jones had more on his mind than archeology and you are thinking about a different Spielberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Crystal Skull will remind you of several movies.
By the time Live Free/Die Hard rolled into the cineplex both you and director Len Wiseman realize time waits for no one. John McClane is divorced from his wife, estranged from his daughter and stalled in his police career. Time hasn’t been kind the past twenty years: McClane is balder, wrinklier, and if anything, his tongue is sharper. A rogue federal employee hacks into computers and problems soon develop along the Eastern Seaboard: federal agencies lose data, Wall Street goes haywire, traffic lights go out of synch! All this and the bad guys kidnap McClane’s daughter, Lucy. Somebody’s going to get their butt kicked and it’s not Detective McClane. Screenwriter Mark Bomback provides the assorted chases, crashes and death defying heroics that are all in a day’s work for our hero.
Both these movies score well because the heroes have a foil. McClane earns the grudging respect of the kid he picked up for questioning, Matt Farrell (Justin Long). Indy bonds with Mutt Williams. Both second bananas move the action while providing some interest for young audiences who need more than a Yippie-Ki-Yay or a bull whip from their heroes.
Both films have strong leads. Bruce Willis offers a sturdy everyman quality while Harrison Ford gets a lot of mileage from a good smile and a fedora. Both are framed in a series of spectacular special effects, although Crystal Skull has more and better minor characters. Cate Blanchett’s work in Crystal Skull won’t add to her collection of Academy, SAG, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards — but she’s great fun to watch as bad Russian Irina Spalka. Karen Allen retains much of the spark that highlighted her appearance in the first Indiana Jones movie. This film has John Hurt and Jim Broadbent in roles that demand little of their great talents. Clearly, when you have a production budget estimated at $185 million you can afford the best.
So. . . is there enough here to draw you to the screen and choose a winner? You bet.
Two strong franchises have legs. Both offer movie escape at the highest level, with compelling lead actors and great effects (Bruce Willis kills a helicopter with a car, Crystal Skull presents a nuclear explosion that is riveting and disturbing in equal amounts).
You’ll enjoy both, but you’ll notice that Crystal Skull has more to work with: A wider-ranging storyline, Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair, George Lucas producing and original music by John Williams.
Live Free or Die Hard is a fine, entertaining movie but falls short against our Smackdown! winner, “Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”