Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a conventional sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark in all of the ways that Temple of Doom is not. Last Crusade, like Raiders, features Indy and Nazis racing to track down an ancient Christian relic for almighty power. Last Crusade is reverential to the iconography and mythology and precedent of Raiders in ways that Temple of Doom ignored. And, like a typical sequel, Last Crusade suffers some from just a bit of diminishing returns.
The main twist this time around is, of course, the inspired casting of Sean Connery as Harrison Ford’s father. It might not make total sense on a genetics or accent level, but in terms of chemistry and cinematic X-factor, it’s absolutely perfect. I was struck watching this time that Connery really doesn’t have all that much to do in the film; but his presence is always felt and a huge boon. He adds both levity and gravity in appropriate doses, and his repartee with Ford is excellent. Better to have two charisma lightning bolts on screen than one.
As with the first two Indiana Jones movies, pretty much everything in Last Crusade is excellently crafted and polished by Steven Spielberg. In fact, I daresay that movie might be too polished. There’s a sense that every iota of this film has been calculated where are the previous two Indy flicks had an air of inventiveness and spontaneity. In particular, the middle act shows the seams of the Indiana Jones formula to me. We get one wheel-spinning adventure set piece after another — all of them pretty fun in isolation, but, for the first time, also burdened by the sense that we are just treading water until that outstanding final act, from the tank chase to the final sunset shot.
Not helping matters is the fact that, other than Connery, this has the most forgettable batch of side characters in the series. With Elsa, we get a quasi love interest who is so obviously a bit of misdirection that I think it would’ve been more surprising if she actually ended up virtuous. There are a few other cameos from Raiders and disposable one-offs — no one as much goofy fun as Short Round, at least. (I do love the River Phoenix casting of Young Indy, though; the entire flashback prologue is a terrific pulpy bit of fun that rapid-fire introduces Indy’s most familiar totems.)
Despite those reservations, this is still an absolute delight to watch. It leans into a more comedic tone than either of the first two. The film glues your eyes to the screen. Something about the Indiana Jones recipe of historical and religious intrigue, blended with raw star power and energy, on a framework tightly constructed action scenes, remains cinema angel-food-cake. The climax, in particular, is terrific. As Indy gets closer and closer to the Holy Grail, and the obstacles become more creative, the sense of danger rises and rises and rises. I am particularly smitten with the way the Grail trials are illusions that are a tribute to the craft and power of filmmaking. It’s a perfect grace note for the trilogy, a love letter to movies.
Indeed, Last Crusade also feels like a proper farewell. It caps an emotional arc for Indy, sending him literally off into the sunset. I’m not a hater of Crystal Skull — and will probably see the fifth — but I am reminded that the first three Indiana Jones movies work together as a pretty much perfect trilogy, one of the best in all of popcorn cinema.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100