Rating: **** out of ****
My opinion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade could be deemed slightly biased. It is the first film I ever saw in theaters and it's also the first movie I purchased on video. I even own the same, worn-down, beat-up copy (and look upon it even more fondly than the widescreen edition, for sentimental reasons, of course) (but nothing beats the pristine quality DVD). I think it's fair to say it's this movie that cemented my love of cinema, the high regard I hold for great escapism, which is sorely lacking from today's cinema; movies that should be fun now drag or bludgeon themselves with relentlessly awful scripts or MTV-style direction that turns relatively simple scenes into chaotic blurs. The Last Crusade may only be thirteen years old, but I think I can safely say they don't make them like they used to.
The film stars, of course, Harrison Ford as Indy Jones, the archaeologist/adventurer who's on yet another quest, this time to find his father, who'd been searching for the Holy Grail. Said Dad is played by none other than Sean Connery, whose highly charismatic performance is quick to place this film, acting-wise, above the others in the trilogy by giving Ford a genuine acting equal (let me put it this way, he's only half a notch below Harrison Ford/Indy in charisma and appeal if that tells you anything). The rest of the film focuses on this ongoing journey between father and son (eventually joined along by Sallah and Marcus Brody), complete with amazing action and stunt sequences, clever humor, and nasty (but fun) surprises.
The script, by Jeffrey Boam, takes a few cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but actually improves upon that story by paying more attention to characterization. The delightful opening scene (all three movies really open with a bang, don't they?); which details how young Indy got his scar, whip, hat, and fear of snakes; makes for a better prequel than Temple of Doom (and any of The Adventure of Young Indiana Jones, for that matter).
The story is engrossing because there's a lot of fun clues offered towards the location of the Grail and, thus, there's a lot of engaging little discoveries (love the "X marks the spot" scene). I'm quite certain, like with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the plot has a few holes, but they're fairly hard to notice, and I've seen this movie quite a few times, but maybe it's just my enjoyment of the film clouding that up. Either way, it speaks volumes in favor of Spielberg's direction and the performances.
Given that action and adventure is the series' selling point, you can expect the thrills and wondrous delight of discovery delivered in spades. The action scenes are terrific (and matched well with John Williams' rousing, memorable score, also the best of the trilogy), the best being a fantastic ten-minute chase sequence on board (and in) a tank, possibly the best action sequence of Spielberg's career. I also loved the motorcycle chase and the Zeppelin setpiece, where the heroes go about dispatching of two enemy fighters in unexpected, but quite hilarious, fashion. The climax, complete with frightening booby traps, is a suspenseful venture into the unknown.
The Last Crusade is far more humor-oriented than its predecessors, but part of the movie's effectiveness is that it's able to deliver belly laughs without defusing the tension during the action sequences. Some of the jokes are just brilliant, including one with Indy armed with a Luger in confrontation with a trio of Nazis on board a tank that's even funnier than the swordsman scene in Raiders (well, to me, at least).
The supporting cast is all-around superb; John Rhys-Davies is back as Sallah, wonderful as ever and displaying a bit more enthusiasm searching for the Grail than he did digging up the Ark of the Covenant. The late Denholm Elliot also returns as Marcus Brody, the most lovable goof of a museum curator. Alison Doody is interesting as Elsa, the blonde historian whom Indy falls for; a twist involving her character and her actions towards the climax make her not as one-dimensional as she may initially appear. Julian Glover is the best of the main Indy villains, he's far more menacing than Paul Freeman's Belloq and less over-the-top but equally enjoyable as Amrish Pruri's Mola Ram. I also enjoyed Michael Byrne's performance as the Jones hating Colonel Vogel, who relishes in torturing Indy and his father. When it comes to pure delightfully nasty villainy, Byrne is even more fun to watch than Glover.
Harrison Ford delivers his best Indy performance (maybe even his best performance, period) in this particular adventure. With the addition of Connery as his father, it reveals a personal side to Indy we haven't seen before. It's his rapport with Connery that separates this film from the rest of the genre. They craft an uncannily touching, funny, and genuine bond. That, coupled with the superb action and thrills, solidifies The Last Crusade as the pinnacle of high adventure summer entertainment.