I know I'm not the first reviewer to make a reference to the one scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that contains the whole essence of the entire Indiana Jones series: Indy and a bad guy beating the living crap out of each other on the top of a moving tank, which is rolling frightfully quickly toward a cliff. Indy of course bests his guy but is unable to escape the tank before it makes its leap of faith. Indy's three companions, Salah, Marcus, and Henry Jones Sr., watch agape with horror as the tank rolls over the lip of the cliff. They move to the edge, looking downward, understandably upset and hurt at the loss of their longtime partner. But a few feet away from where they're standing, Indy's hand grasps a large, firm root, then Indy slowly hauls himself up and over the edge, having cleared the tank in time after all. He then joins his friends, staring into the rocky void, wondering what's so fascinating about the spectacular tank wreck below. Henry looks to his right, glancing Indy before turning his attention back to the bluff, and then performs a perfect double take as the others look at Indy, not caring about how he managed to survive so much as the fact that he pulled it off at all. Finally, they head back to their horses, leaving Indy crumpled, catching his breath on the ground. It is at this point that Indy's famed fedora, having blown off at some point during the ordeal, blows gently onto the ground in front of him.
To hear George Lucas tell it, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was never actually meant to be the last movie in the Indiana Jones series. He, director Steven Spielberg, and star Harrison Ford were just never able to find enough overlapping free time, or a good script. Considering how these are three of the biggest and most powerful people in the movie industry, the former is a perfectly valid excuse. But I already reviewed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I won't get into it. What we have with Last Crusade is the triumphant would-have-been final movie in George Lucas's Saturday morning serial movie series, and it's a doozy.
The first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a classic. It is also my all-time favorite movie. Temple of Doom took Indy in a darker direction. It worked pretty well, but wasn't up to the first one. Last Crusade returns the series to Indy's Raiders roots: A religious artifact, the Nazis, a terrific hand of god cataclysm at the end, and Marcus and Salah are both in this movie. But Lucas and Spielberg also went all out, taking Indy across three continents, into the Hindenberg, to Venice, Berlin, and Austria among other places in a fast-paced pursuit of the Holy Grail. Perhaps most importantly, they brought in Sean Connery to play Henry Jones Sr., Indy's pop! This is one of the most sensical casting decisions in Hollywood history - it does, after all, make perfect sense that Indiana Jones could spring from the loins of James Bond!
Being second banana to Indiana Jones is one hell of a side order. So far, 007 is the only one who's pulled it off flawlessly, at first with a bit of hilarious befuddlement but later with all of the cool cockiness and bravado we expect from his offspring. He manages to crash two airplanes - one with an umbrella - take out a small group of Nazi captors while on a tank, find a secret exit from a Nazi hideout, and blow up a truck full of Hitler's henchmen. And while it's Indy who collects the Grail in the end, it's Henry's unseen busywork which makes his passage through the temple possible. Step for step, he's the match for Indy's footwork we desired, and half the time he does it all by accident. The banter between the two is impeccably written and very, very funny. ("You mean this is just another typical day for you?" "No dad, this is better than most.")
The plot revolves around Henry's diary. There's a man named Walter Donovan who tracks down Indy after his latest archeological recovery. Donovan is after the Holy Grail, but the leader of the expedition he sent has disappeared after finding one of the most necessary clues. Indy brushes him off, suggesting Donovan seek out his father, because that's his area. But Donovan already did that, and Henry is in fact the one who disappeared without a trace. In the meantime, Indy has received an odd package from Venice which contains Henry's diary. After his house is ransacked by invaders looking for the diary, Indy reconsiders and hops the first plane to Venice to look for his dad. Only after Henry is recovered does the movie switch to a search for the Holy Grail, an artifact which Henry has sought since Indy's childhood and has the power to grant eternal life.
Last Crusade feels even more like a cheesy action serial than Raiders. The action is more constant, there are silly betrayals, and the logic of the whole thing is fuzzy at best. But this, of course, is the appeal of the entire spectacle. Last Crusade knows how silly it is, and it spends a lot of time winking at us. There's a clever reference to Raiders in one scene, and just before then, Indy quite vocally points out that his digging spot is marked by an X; he had earlier denounced the idea of X ever marking a spot to one of his classes. Indy's first sidekick through his journey, Dr. Elsa Schneider, feels like one of Indy's previous female sidekicks but without the addition of any defining character traits. But halfway through the movie, she shows her true colors but threatens to leave for much of the remainder of it. But Henry shows up just in time for the coup, and at that point Last Crusade kicks into high gear. The pace of this movie is simply breathtaking. I've seen it many times and I still can't believe how quickly it flies.
As the relationship between Indy and Henry develops, we get the clear impression that the two of them were never really all that close. They don't have a lot in common and rarely spoke since Indy's 18th year. They try to have a couple of moments in Last Crusade, but the closest one takes a bullet to make it happen. There is, however, a genuine affection between the two. Indy and Henry's reunion may not be visually tearful, but that's simply because what little common ground they had between them is long lost. So Indy and Henry are showing their affection the only way they know how - with bickering. (It's implied in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that the two of them stayed close after Last Crusade.)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade knows just what kind of movie it is, and how can you hate a movie like that? Yes, it's implausible. But this is one of the clearest instances of a movie saying to the plausibility naysayers "I'M A MOVIE!" Last Crusade is setting your brain on cruise control and enjoying the ride. Plus you get to see Sean Connery and Harrison Ford shoot lots of Nazis, and isn't that in itself more than enough to tell you that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is made of total awesomeness and win? Hell, Connery and Ford taking the front lines at the outset of World War II is actually almost enough to make you feel bad for the Nazis. Almost.
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