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INDIANA JONES: THE ADVENTURE COLLECTION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, Sean Connery, River Phoenix
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  359 Minutes
Release Date:  May 13, 2008

“Would you ever play Han Solo again?”

“I think Han would be a little thin for me at this stage in my career.”

“Would you play Indiana Jones again?”

“In a New York minute.” - Harrison Ford, as interviewed by Barbara Walters

Overview:  

He began as an idea in the mind of George Lucas...a throwback to the great serial movie adventurers of his youth.  But when Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, teamed up with Steven Spielberg, the wunderkind director behind Jaws, that singular vision of a fedora doffing, whip cracking, globetrotting archaeologist became a cultural icon.

His name was Indiana Jones, and the posters for his screen debut proclaimed “The Ultimate Hero in the Ultimate Adventure”.  Simply stated yet unapologetically boastful, it turned out to be truth in advertising.  Raiders of the Lost Ark was not only an instant hit and a critical favorite, it became one of those event movies that everyone can remember clearly the first time they saw it. 

Back when I first learned these movies were at long last coming to DVD, my friends and I chatted up that experience.  The memories were fond, and the trip down memory lane like an adventure in and of itself.  My comrade in arms at DVD Movie Central Gordon even told me it was the first ever movie he saw in a theatre.  I’m not sure at exactly what point I became Methuselah, but there it is…

Two more films would follow, completing George Lucas’ vision of a trilogy (something he always spoke of, even at the beginning, though he would later admit he didn’t really have two more stories in mind at the time), and further cementing Steven Spielberg’s star as a director who gave his audiences the most entertainment possible for their movie going buck.  The films were filled with action, adventure, spectacle, vast drama and tickling humor.

But they mostly worked because of a great central character.  Indiana Jones was indeed an ultimate hero, and one fans immediately bonded with.  He was gritty and determined, not always graceful in his methods, not always successful at first attempt, and someone who confronted trouble by seat-of-the-pants thinking instead of as though every move were choreographed.  He was a man of action and a man of knowledge in one, turning his doctorate in archaeology into a ticket to adventure.  And really…who else could have ever played him besides Harrison Ford?

These films are all a testament to a perfect singular vision of a character, a style, and a love of movie making that has kept audiences infected with the spirit of adventure for more than a quarter century now.  The fedora, leather jacket and whip have become almost as iconic as the Tramp’s derby, mustache and cane.  People come to an Indiana Jones film expecting a good time…and Messrs Spielberg, Lucas and Ford never disappoint, no matter how many times you might have seen the movies.

Films:
Raiders of the Lost Ark ****

“Jones, do you realize what the Ark is?  It’s a transmitter.  It’s a radio for speaking to God, and it’s within my reach!”

“You want to talk to God?  Let’s go see Him together…I’ve got nothing better to do!”

Even as a thirteen year old boy, I remember sitting in a darkened theatre while Raiders of the Lost Ark played out on the screen in front of me and marveling, “THIS is why they invented the movies.” 

Of all the films that were key in my formation, this one might have been the coup de grace.  Star Wars opened my young mind, 2001 blew it away, but in between was an incredibly imaginative adventure of guts and glory, of good guys and Nazis, and no less than the power of God being squeezed into the aperture of a camera.  It flickered on the screen before my eyes for two hours, but it played nonstop in my mind for a long time after.

For a kid, it was everything I could want…fights, chases, explosions, adventure, and a sense of fearless, reckless abandon.  It’s hero was everything me and my friends wanted to be…and I’d always thought archaeology was boring in social studies class.

The big aspects of the movie impressed me, but so did the more subtle ones.  As an avid Bible reader growing up, I remember how cheerfully agape I sat when I realized that there was a movie out about a quest for the Ark of the Covenant.  Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t need the film’s exposition to realize what a crux that was for a story and what possibilities it entailed.  Steven Spielberg may have cultivated cinema’s first McGuffin that actually meant a lot more than a plot kicker.

But before we get into that, there’s the opening sequence that perfectly sets the tone and introduces us to Indiana Jones as both a scholar and a man of action.  His attempt to recover a fabled artifact leads him through a jungle populated by hostile and deadly natives and into a marvel of an ancient temple, filled with poisoned darts, spear traps, a gaping chasm, and a giant boulder.  He faces betrayal by his comrades, the introduction of his arch nemesis Belloq (Paul Freeman), several narrow getaways, huge spiders, and a big snake.  And that’s just the opening…we haven’t started the real story yet!

The main story takes Indy on a globetrotting trek from the jungles to the mountains of Nepal to the deserts of Egypt.  Along the way, the story of the Ark is revealed, as well as a new mythology concerning what might have happened to it between Old Testament times and today.  He also hooks up with an old flame in Marion Ravenwood (Allen, the best of all the Indiana Jones heroines), confronts his enemy Belloq, and races against time to acquire the Ark ahead of the Nazis and Hitler, who would use the most sacred and powerful of Jewish relics to lead the terror of his Third Reich across the world.

The action is quite constant…Spielberg orchestrates it like a symphony, with multiple components working in harmony and building on one another in startling crescendos.  The only lulls are just long enough for the audience to catch its breath, and then it’s back into it.  An escape from an underground tomb leads to a fight on a circling plane with gas explosions and propellers turning Nazis into goulash, which goes right into the film’s piece de resistance, a brilliantly conceived and executed truck chase across the desert.

Looking back at the movie with older eyes, I’m delighted at how well it still holds up.  Sure, I question the logic of a stretch or two, I notice a continuity error here or there, and I’m more aware of the special effects, which were stunning for the time but look a little dated in our age of CGI.  But those are only minor bones to pick over if you really want to.  The full skeletal structure is as strong as ever:  great story, striking action, wonderful characters and a can’t miss good vs. evil mentality that lets you cheer loud and hard for the heroes while booing the villains (the Nazis make for the best movie bad guys because it will ALWAYS be politically correct to hate them).

The moviegoers loved it, the critics praised it, the Academy showered it with nominations…yet today, some consider Raiders to be a bit of a lark for its auteur.  It is in fact interesting to consider that the same director who made the grittiest and most devastating look at the Jewish experience under Nazi rule (Schindler’s List) could use those same Nazis in a whimsical adventure story.  But just consider the shot of the Ark sealed in a German crate with swastikas crudely stenciled on.  Something in that holy artifact wouldn’t allow so anti-Semitic a symbol to adorn it.  Think Spielberg isn’t making a statement against Hitler’s fascism?  Think again.

But also consider the incredible final shot and think:  one government wanted to abuse the Ark for power, another government simply dismissed and ignored it in spite of everything.  There’s something about that finale that always staggers my mind.  It’s a hell of an unusual way to end an adventurous romp…and the movie is all the better for it.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Recognize the pilot of the circling German aircraft?  It’s none other than Spielberg’s partner in production, Frank Marshall!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ***

“You could get yourself killed for your damned fortune and glory!”

“Maybe…but not today.”

Not since Star Wars had movie fans so eagerly anticipated a sequel, but the buzz was hot, heavy and strong for months and months before the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  As with Raiders, it became something of an event.  Friends who got to see it first were surrounded by those of us who had to wait, eager for every juicy detail, hanging on every plot point as though we were in the theatre instead of our schoolyard.

But the passage of time hasn’t been as kind to the second installment.  The film was partly driven by George Lucas’ opinion that a second installment of a trilogy should be the darkest, a la The Empire Strikes Back.  Steven Spielberg has since said that, largely because of the darker aspects, Temple is his least favorite of the three.

My own opinion has wavered a bit over the years, so I was glad to sit down with the DVD and see it again fresh.  Once I thought it was a mighty adventure spectacle.  Later, I thought it was a bit of a downer, with less appealing treasures, flatter supporting characters, and unmemorable villains.  Now, I’ve finally come to accept it for what it is:  a big action fest that awkwardly but sometimes charmingly balances humor against darker bits, and something of a leg-stretcher for our hero Indiana Jones.  He went after big quarry in the first film, and would do so again in the third.  This film was just something for him to exercise his talents and let the moviegoers have a good time.

It was quietly billed as a prequel, with the story taking place before the events in Raiders.  After opening with a silly musical number and a bit of action in a Shanghai nightclub (not quite the same punch as the opening to the original film), Indiana Jones and his kid sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) pick up a reluctant tagalong, Willie Scott (Capshaw, who would later become Mrs. Spielberg), and the trio stumble upon an ancient evil plaguing a village in India.

The loss of the village’s sacred stone has led to famine and desolation, and even worse, the disappearance of their children.  After a night of wining and dining in the palace of Pankot (a dinner sequence that has to be seen to be believed), Jones and company discover a passageway that leads right to the Temple of Doom, where an ancient cult built on human sacrifice has resurrected.  It will be up to Indy and his friends to grab the holy stone, defeat the evildoers, rescue the children from their slavery, and live happily ever after.

There’s fun to be had here, circling strikingly dark centerpieces involving the cult’s rituals and repeatedly showing children in peril.  The action scenes are terrific, from an airplane jump using an inflatable raft to a roller coaster-styled mine cart chase, to the climax atop a suspension bridge.  The fun mostly makes up for the missing elements from the first movie…as mentioned, better villains, a more impressive treasure, and most of all, a stronger leading lady.  Ms. Capshaw is an intelligent woman in real life, so it’s sometimes painful to watch her reduced to the worst kind of prima donna damsel in distress here.  Lots of film lovers really missed the spunk of Marion Ravenwood.

But Temple of Doom proved there was more gold to mine for with the central character and basic premise.  Lucas, Spielberg and Ford would dip into the well one more time, and when they did, they struck a major lode.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Owing to many parents’ outrage over the darkness and violence of this picture, Steven Spielberg suggested the creation of a PG-13 rating to the MPAA…and got it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ***1/2

“Those people are trying to kill us!”

“I know, Dad!”

“This is a new experience for me!”

“It happens to me all the time!”

By all accounts, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was supposed to be Indy’s last hurrah.  George Lucas envisioned a trilogy, and this movie would make three.  Harrison Ford was as agile and athletic as most men half his age, but he was still getting older.  And Steven Spielberg wanted to show he could do it better than was done with Temple of Doom.

We now know that Last Crusade is not be the final installment after all, but one thing’s for sure…if it had been, the series went out in a blaze of glory.  This is the film that brought the fun back to Indiana Jones, with plenty of action, lighthearted humor, and featuring the only quest that could have ever rivaled the one for the Lost Ark.

It was also a return to formula, in a way.  Recognizing they had a winning layout in the first film, we once again start with a big treasure retrieval scene that has little to do with the main story, the return of Indy in the classroom, the re-emergence of a couple of favorite characters in Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), the Nazis back as the bad guys, and once again, a hunt for an artifact of mythological proportions.

But the main draw of the film is the appearance of Indy’s dad, Dr. Henry Jones Sr. (Connery), a professor of Medieval literature with a lifelong obsession over the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper believed to offer immortality to whomever drank from it.  When an old patron Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) assembles a team to piece together the historical clues and recover the Grail, Indy’s father is chosen to lead.  But when Dad disappears, it’s up to Indy to step in.  Rescue his father, defeat the Nazis, find the Holy Grail.  Impossible?  All in a day’s work for the younger Dr. Jones.

One could sense while watching the movie that it was probably going to be the last one.  As such, Spielberg and company didn’t seem to miss one trick.  Any idea they could squeeze in, they did.  Amongst the spectacles are a motorcycle chase, a boat racing against a gigantic mincing propeller, an aerial dogfight, a land battle with a monstrous tank, and more…and this is before the attempt to recover the Grail even begins.

Another terrific idea was the opening sequence, which features Indiana Jones as a boy on his first big adventure.  River Phoenix is hysterically accurate with his impersonations of Harrison Ford’s body movements and speech patterns.  His frantic run is dead-on perfect.  But even better, this bit gives us some of the history on how Dr. Jones got to be the way he is…why he uses the whip, why he’s terrified of snakes, and how he got that scar on his chin.  You could say that The Last Crusade spanned from the first to the last triumphs of our favorite archaeologist.

No movie could fully duplicate the magic of Raiders, and I’m not sure the idea behind the final film was even to try.  It was just a full scale return to the whip cracking, pistol popping, two fisted action and adventure style that helped make the series a phenomenon.  The Indiana Jones series rested well there for a long time, but it's coming back after almost twenty years of rest...and I for one can't wait!

BONUS TRIVIA:  Despite their great on-screen chemistry as father and son, Sean Connery is actually only 12 years older than Harrison Ford!

Video:  Raiders ***, Temple of Doom ***1/2, Last Crusade ****

As the films get more recent, the anamorphic transfers become more beautiful.  Raiders looks quite impressive for an early 80s movie…better than any previous home video version I’ve seen, including the laser disc.  The digital restoration brought the colors back to full glory.  Just the opening segment in the jungle is enough to convince.  The detail level ranges from strong to slightly weaker in one or two spots, mainly against dark images like Indy’s jacket.  A little softness and murkiness is noticeable.  But consider those minor complaints.

But as mentioned, as the films progress, so does the quality.  Temple of Doom, with it’s many darkened firelit sequences, is a revelation.  The Last Crusade gets all elements right:  detail is strong in every lighting level, grain is minimal, colors are strong and pure…nothing interferes with the viewing enjoyment.

Audio:  Raiders ***, Temple of Doom ****, Last Crusade ****

Likewise, the 5.1 mixes are all impressive.  Raiders is mostly good with a few sequences that are excellent; the barroom fight, the truck chase, and the final revelation from the ark all sound exquisite, with surround channels pumping and the .1 channel rattling your floorboards.  The final two films are perfection:  dynamic, clean, and plenty of fast moving crossover signals to bring the action to life.  Considering how nonstop the action seems in Last Crusade, that one was a true pinnacle experience.  The THX logo on all of these discs is well merited.

Features ***1/2

There are no commentaries, but George Lucas and Steven Spielberg provide introductions to all the films, and each disc also includes galleries of photos, promos and effects, plus looks at the LEGO game demos for each film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also includes an appreciation, a look at the melting face effect, and a storyboard sequence for the Well of Souls.

Temple of Doom features remembrances about the movie's many creepy creatures, a look at the locations, and a storyboard sequence for the thrilling mine chase.

Finally, The Last Crusade contains looks at the women of the series as well as Indy's friends and foes, plus a storyboard look at the film's opening.

Summary:

Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection may have started out as homage to the kind of adventures they didn’t make like they used to anymore, but they became films that raised the bar for action, adventure, science and fantasy all in one.  A terrific central character made the spectacle possible and kept audiences coming back for film after film.  And this set will get you ready for when Indy takes to the screen one more time this summer!

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