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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

CAST:

Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Allison Doody, Denholm Elliott, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, Michael Byrne, River Phoenix

REVIEW:

After the general disappointment over Temple of Doom - and the film’s occasional weirdness- Last Crusade, as if deciding to play it safe, takes us back into familiar territory- Indy revisits the deserts of the Middle East in search of an ancient legendary religious artifact, the Nazis are once again the bad guys, Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody and John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah return, and the most exciting and extended action sequence is a duel between Indy and the Nazis in the desert. To help avoid making Last Crusade seem like too much of a retread of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” , we have Sean Connery thrown into the mix as Indy’s never-before-seen father. In fact, it could very easily be argued- and might even be undeniable- that making the centerpiece relationship of the film a father-son dynamic instead of a romantic one is the most original part of the movie, and it opens up doors to plenty of fresh material that adds a very welcome spark.

The prologue also sets itself apart from others in the series in that it takes us all the way back to 1912 Utah, with a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) showing his already-developed knack for getting into trouble and making daring escapes from it, as he tries to get the Cross of Coronado away from a gang of robbers. He loses the cross, but in grudging respect for the boy’s daring and tenaciousness his opponent gives him his trademark fedora. After that, the rest of the movie takes place in 1938, with Dr. Jones once again drawn away from his teaching duties, this time for something more personal than priceless artifacts: his estranged father, Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery), has gone missing while researching the location of the Holy Grail. Funded by a wealthy American, Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), with his own interests in the Grail- and a little too much interest in the supposed eternal life it grants to anyone who drinks from it- Indy- with his friend and colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) tagging along- heads to Venice, Italy, where he meets an Austrian colleague of his father’s, the comely Dr. Elsa Schneider (Allison Doody). As the search goes on, Indy finds that the Nazis are again involved, all around him cannot be trusted, and meets back up with an old friend from Raiders, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

While Temple of Doom ventured into dark and creepy territory, Last Crusade stays more lightweight. Out of the three original Indiana Jones films, it’s probably the one that could most be described as an action-comedy, but that’s not a bad thing. The action and humor is spread around more evenly and better integrated than in Temple of Doom, where the tone veered from slapstick comedy to human sacrificing rituals including hearts being pulled out and victims lowered into pits of fire. Overall, if Last Crusade isn’t quite as deft as Raiders, it’s much more in the same vein, which is a welcome development. The prologue has a degree of wit to it, particularly in the way it acknowledges Ford’s chin scar and shows the origins of his fedora, and starts us off with an entertaining action sequence involving a chase on top of a train filled with circus animals. Other cliffhanger sequences involve a boat chase through the canals of Venice, and an escape from a German Zeppelin involving a dogfight between Indy and his dad and German fighters. Easily the most exciting and extended action sequence the film has to offer is the desert showdown between Indy on horseback and a tank commanded by Nazi Colonel Vogel (an enjoyably scenery-chomping Michael Byrne). This sequence took weeks to film and arrange, and harkens back to the truck chase in Raiders.

The six-year gap between Temple of Doom and Last Crusade does nothing to diminish Harrison Ford’s ability to don the fedora and whip and go off on another adventure as Indiana Jones (hopefully the same is true of the nineteen-year gap between the so-called Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Ford is in as fine form as Indy as ever, and enjoys great comedic rapport with Sean Connery (Connery was actually only twelve years older than his onscreen son Ford). Ford slips back into his character like an old, comfortable shoe, and Indy’s relationship with his father adds another dimension to the character and lets us see Indy as a little more than the famed adventurer. The former 007 Connery, cheerfully content to ride in the passenger seat and surrender the action hero reins to a (slightly) younger man, provides the vast majority of the movie’s comic relief, and is much more successful at it than Kate Capshaw was in the previous film. In fact, Connery is so delightful that it’s almost a shame he’s only in one installment. Allison Doody is more dubious than the other Indy women, with a touch of the femme fatale. Denholm Elliott, whose role is much expanded from Raiders of the Lost Ark, provides some additional comic relief as the doddering Brody (sadly, Elliott was diagnosed with AIDS shortly before filming began, and died in 1992). John Rhys-Davies is another welcome returning veteran as Sallah. As the lead villain, Julian Glover is adequate but not especially memorable. He’s too urbane to be truly nasty or menacing. Donovan is cut from the same cloth as Belloq, cultured men who have gotten in bed with the Nazis for their own purposes but aren’t used to personally dirtying their lily-white hands, but Belloq was more interesting. On the other hand, Michael Byrne is a great Nazi caricature- blond, blue-eyed, and maniacally gung-ho. His tank duel with Indy is the best and most extended action sequence in the movie, especially since he comes across as the most formidable and nasty of the baddies Crusade has to offer (he’s got a funny bit where he interrogates Connery and punctuates every sentence by slapping him with his glove).

While the father-son bickering between Indy and his father (who has the embarrassing habit of referring to him as Junior) forms the crux of the movie’s humor, probably the film’s most clever tongue-in-cheek bit involves Indy and his dad visiting Berlin in the middle of a Nazi rally where Indy, disguised as a German soldier, has a face-to-face encounter with Adolf Hitler. Certain he is trapped, Indy defeatedly hands his father’s diary detailing his exhaustive hunt for the Grail…only to have the Führer obliviously autograph it and hand it right back (in a bit of trivia, the actor who briefly appears as Hitler is the late Michael Sheard, best-remembered as the ill-fated Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back, the first of several subordinates to be “Force-choked” by Darth Vader; Ronald Lacey, Raiders’ Gestapo agent Toht, is also glimpsed during the Nazi rally as Heinrich Himmler). Several of Connery’s droll pronouncements- “this is intolerable” and “our situation has not improved”- are priceless, and of course there’s the requisite “creature scene” no Indy movie is complete without. This time it’s rats. There’s the “legendary object punishes bad guys” climax, and a ride into the sunset that seems about as fitting a close to the adventures of Indiana Jones as can be expected from a film titled The Last Crusade, but with 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , all is proven not so final after all. At the time, after scheduling conflicts with Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg delayed its release for five years, Last Crusade was met enthusiastically by audiences and became the second highest-grossing movie of the year, second only to Tim Burton’s Batman and surpassing other such high-profile titles as Back to the Future Part II, Lethal Weapon 2 , and Star Trek V. Of the three Indiana Jones sequels, Last Crusade is the most similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and if it doesn’t quite equal it, it comes close, and does a worthy job of recapturing the breezy sense of fun and adventure that makes the series so popular.

***1/2

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