In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford reinvents the hard-guy archaeologist who carries lots of dents and a bottomless haversack of tricks. He convinces you that between 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (set in 1938) and The Crystal Skull (set in 1957), Jones has never stopped making things up as he goes along.
A knack for exploiting twists of fate is crucial to Indy's makeup - and to the success of the entire series. At its best, it's been an inspired partnership between director Steven Spielberg and this sometimes gnarly, sometimes daffy star.
It's rare for action heroes to revisit signature roles without sacrificing the spark in their eye to hopeless rue or self-consciousness. Not even Sean Connery, Ford's co-star in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, pulled off his dozen-years-older James Bond in Never Say Never Again, a movie that failed to exploit its character's nonpareil jet-set street cred and its star's handsomely aged suaveness and virility.
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull provides some scintillating escapism because Ford brings more authority and elan than ever to Indy's hard-bitten humor. By depicting Indy as someone who's grown in his job without losing his vulnerability and eccentricities, this film allows Ford to draw on everything he's learned as an actor - in movies as different as Witness or Working Girl - and apply it to what could have been a cookie-cutter entry.
The movie comes at a happy time for audience and star. Though Ford has tried to diversify his bill of fare - he was superbly off-the-wall as a cop moonlighting as a real estate agent in Ron Shelton's underrated comedy Hollywood Homicide (2003) - he exhausted himself and his fans in a string of solid, formulaic action movies, such as the well-made computer thriller Firewall.
In Firewall, he effortlessly embodied professional and family devotion, but there was something missing: the joy that bubbled up from Ford as early as American Graffiti (1973). In The Crystal Skull, that joy comes back the way it did for Paul Newman when, at roughly the same age, he starred in Shelton's Blaze (1989).
"I don't like developing something for myself," Ford once told me, "because then I feel that when I get on the stage, I won't have that fresh point of view. I will have used it all up, pissed it all away in the gym, and when the big game comes, I'd be left without my instincts to fall back on."
In The Crystal Skull, Spielberg, producer George Lucas and writer David Koepp give the actor a whole new set of emotional vectors on which to work his intuition. If the memorable moments in The Last Crusade center on the clash between Dr. Jones and his emotionally withholding father, Dr. Jones Sr. (Connery), The Crystal Skull invests Indy with his own paternal issues - and a chance to rekindle and commit to his long-past romance with Karen Allen's multifaceted Marion Ravenwood.
The movie is full of circuslike stunts, especially when Indy forces himself and others in and out of speeding vehicles. Spielberg applies his cinematic marksmanship to Ford's impromptu daredevilry, surrounding his simultaneously desperate and giddy character with deft, amusing filmmaking. But the biggest tingles come from the director's brilliance at positioning a simple gesture so it triggers a stunning turnaround - and from Ford's satirical zest at delivering that gesture so it registers to the audience and not to all the thugs encircling Indy.
Ford has always succeeded in squeezing his own odd, sardonic merriment into his franchises' tight spaces. He was the one who came up with the wittiest line of The Empire Strikes Back: When Ford's Han Solo passes Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia on the way to the carbon-freeze chamber, she says the words that both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have been waiting to hear for two whole movies: "I love you" - to which Han replies, "I know." And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was Ford who decided that Indy should take one look at a menacing master swordsman - and rather than test the blade with his whip, unholster his gun and shoot the bad guy dead.
The pleasure of seeing Ford return as Dr. Jones is as intense as it would have been for Errol Flynn to pull off a second Sherwood Forest movie that combined his ebullient derring-do in The Adventures of Robin Hood with the grizzled wisdom of Connery in Robin and Marian. More than the plot or dialogue of The Crystal Skull, Ford's talent for mixing never-before-seen blends of charisma, wariness and hard-won patience provides the film with surprise and style. He locates Indy's wells of tenderness and fellow feeling. They shoot up through his crusty surface with the force and impact of geysers.
The most popular Raiders-influenced series is called National Treasure. By now, Harrison Ford is one.