Sitting through the final death agonies of the Star Wars prequel franchise was like witnessing the last moments of a dying elephant: the staggering, the pain, the doomed, redundant trumpeting. Episode III was where, with an earth-shuddering crash, the unhappy beast finally dropped to its great, wrinkly knees. Watching this new Indiana Jones movie, on the other hand, is like seeing a healthy, if elderly, elephant forced out of dignified retirement and made to caper and do tricks, to the obvious detriment of its health. There are some splendid stunts and one authentic flash of Spielberg genius. But the whole thing looks a trifle pointless.

Harrison Ford returns, good value as ever in the role of Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. The period is the cold war 1950s, with Indy on the verge of retiring as a professor. Now, the belt is a little looser, the jowls a little more grizzled, the hatband sweatier; intentionally or not, he even has the tiniest bit of a stoop. His dad, Henry Sr, once played by Sean Connery, is supposed to have passed away - a fact which may cause a twinge of timor mortis, given that Connery is only 12 years older than Ford.

This new adventure is basically another slice of the old adventure serials that Indy's creators, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, triumphantly reintroduced into American popular culture. This one is Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Erich von Daniken with a touch of Damien Hirst. The idea is that Jones, working for American intelligence, discovers a fiendish Russian plot to infiltrate a US military base in the desert, an Area 51 sort of place where there is a highly classified but apparently undissected alien corpse.

It is here that Jones confronts his new enemy, a Russian ice queen called Irina with a black bob hairpiece, fetchingly tailored military fatigues and sexy boots, played by Cate Blanchett using the time-honoured technique of putting a "y" before every vowel. "You wiyill tyell mye ayall Amyerica's syecryets!" This Russkie babe, heading up Stalin's well-known parapsychology attack unit, wants to get her socialist talons on a mythic crystal skull, perhaps belonging to some alien visitor, which, if reintroduced into its last resting place in the tomb of a legendary pre-Mayan civilisation deep in the South American jungle, will give the Kremlin undreamt-of mystical power over the west.

But not if Indiana Jones gets there first, it won't. So the chase is on, with many a secondary, subsidiary chase, and the great man is helped by a new young sidekick called Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who arrives in the first shot modelling a heterosexual version of Marlon Brando's biker look. Mutt takes over some of Indy's derring-do responsibilities, but not all of them, by any means. There is also Jones's unreliable Brit pal Mac, played by Ray Winstone, who has to shout "Jonesy!" a lot, and John Hurt plays a befuddled visionary professor called Oxley; being so obviously old and senile, his job seems to be to make Ford look youngish in comparison. It's good to see Karen Allen back as Indiana's first, and feistiest, love.

The Nazis were the baddies in the first and third Indiana Jones movies; for the second, dusky-hued foreigners from the subcontinent were the evildoers, a questionable choice that landed Spielberg in some trouble, and demonstrated the perils of reviving 1930s storylines with 1930s attitudes. The Soviet Union is probably a safe bet.

When I think of the Indiana Jones movies now, the single glorious moment is that superb visual gag pitting the swordsman against the gunman - the winner being all too obvious. It was a brilliant joke, and it chimed with Indiana Jones's paradoxical modernity: the gun beats the sword, of course it does, duh!

Despite harking back to a golden age, the Jones franchise was thrillingly modern and new. We'd never seen such stunts, such action, blended so effortlessly with self-deprecatory humour. But since then, everyone else has been ripping off the act. While Ford has been away, we've had movies such as National Treasure, Sahara, The Mummy and The Da Vinci Code. So when we see the lost tombs, the great grinding stone walls, the sand waterfalls and gigantic underground shrines swivelling into new positions like enormous occult machines - well, the thrill is gone. Repeatedly, we are told that that the Crystal Skull's resting place will be in El Dorado, a whole city made of gold! Gold, gold, gold! What marvels we all expected from George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, but what an ungolden letdown it is. And the treasures themselves look as if they are going to be on the Antiques Roadshow.

There is one moment of the old Spielberg magic. Jones finds himself alone on a nuclear test site with just 10 seconds to go before annihilation. Desperately, he knocks on the door of a house in an eerily quiet neighbourhood, but finds that the only occupants are lifesize mannequins: the whole community is a fake, constructed by the US government to assess the effect of a nuclear blast on civilians. To see Indiana Jones alone in this chilling ghost town, desperately improvising a shelter from the explosion, is a tremendous moment, satirical and surreal. As for the rest - well, let's hope this really is the Last Crusade.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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