Top. Men.

I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark again on cable last night, and was reminded once again just what a masterful piece of filmmaking that movie is. I’m no film buff, as I’ve said, but it seems to me that Raiders is something like the platonic ideal of an action movie. When you think about the way it’s laid out, it’s essentially just one classic, memorable action sequence right after another, with almost no down-time. Like a fat man with a bag of potato chips, you can’t watch just one scene of Raiders — you have to watch the whole thing. It starts with the booby-trapped ruin and the famous boulder escape, moves right into Indy escaping from Belloq’s misguided savages. Then you’ve got the fight in the burning bar, which jumps straight into the bazaar chase where Indy just shoots the guy. Then Indy’s lowered into the snake pit, then you’ve got the battle around the airplane, then the superb truck sequence… then you might as well stay and see the ending. Raiders might have more forward momentum than any piece of fiction ever. The writing is punchy, and every fifteen minutes you’re treated to one of the most magnificent action sequences of all time.

And really, the genius of the movie is that each of those setpiece action sequences are unique. Most action movies are just “the hero punches bad guys a lot” or “the hero shoots bad guys a lot”, maybe with a car chase in between to shake things up. All of Raiders’ marquee moments have their own flavor to them… some are Indy versus his environment, some are Indy crushing a bunch of mooks, some are Indy getting whupped by mooks. You never see the same thing twice, none of them take place in the same kind of location (in order: dilapidated ruin, jungle, cramped bar, crowded street, dilapidated ruin (okay, it’s not perfect), air field, trucks, island), and the sheer spectacle is incredible.

It’s so incredible, in fact, that you’re willing to overlook the fact that Indy basically has no effect on the movie’s plot whatsoever. If he’d stayed home and graded papers, the Nazis would have found the Ark of the Covenant, opened it, gotten their faces fried, end of story. (Which is, you’ll note, more or less exactly what happened in the actual movie even after Indy got involved.) Or they would have not found the Ark at all, shot Belloq for his miserable failure, gone back to Germany, end of story, which is arguably even better. Generally you like your action hero to be central to the plot’s resolution, but while Indy flails around a lot and kills a lot of people he doesn’t do a whole lot to fix things. His biggest contribution to the film is putting the Ark in the hands of Area 51, where it can be studied by… top… men.

The newest Indiana Jones movie has met with a lot of criticism in certain quarters, but I don’t mind it all that much. It’s a perfectly acceptable action flick. The problem is that it takes the lessons of Raiders and completely ignores them. In Raiders the plot and the macguffin are only there to string us from one eyeball-kicking action sequence to another, but in Crystal Skulls it takes center stage — and really? The plot in Crystal Skulls isn’t that good. Raiders characterizes by showing us the essence of each character in these iconic scenes — Indy whipping the gun out of the hands of the guy who’s trying to kill him, Marion drinking the guy under the table, Belloq anticipating Indy’s moves and stealing his relic — but Crystal Skulls just flat-out tells us. In dialogue. That’s no good. No yappy-yappy! Bad film series! No biscuit.

Still better than Temple of Doom, though, where all the characters are actively annoying.

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