I always thought this was the weakest of the trilogy. I was right. (I say "trilogy" because Crystal Skull didn't exist when I was a child. I'll talk about that film when I've watched it, which will be soon.)
The Last Crusade isn't a bad film, mind you. To claim that would be silly. Many intelligent, sensible people call it their favourite of the series and I wouldn't dream of trying to talk them out of that. It's because of Sean Connery, isn't it? He brings something special to the franchise and he's in none of the other films. However, on the other hand...
1. It's not exciting. I'm tempted not to call it an action movie. This was the film's worst crime in the eyes of my childhood self. Temple of Doom
never stops, but The Last Crusade only occasionally gets started. Indy hangs around with old blokes, which is okay when it's Connery but the death of adventure with Denholm Elliott. (Elderly actors are wonderful, but Elliott here is like someone's mum.) The tank sequence doesn't quite work for me, feeling a little flabby and shapeless, and I think that's one of those rare examples where Spielberg slips up with his normally instinctive ability to grab you by the seat of your pants. Furthermore, after that there's still plenty of business before the closing credits and none of it involves action scenes at all.
More specifically, my problem with the tank sequence is that visually it's not moving clearly towards an objective. From that point of view, it's muddy. If you're running away from a tidal wave of water, for instance, you can tell at a glance what's going on. Action: run like hell. Objective: not get swept away. The Last Crusade's tank sequence, on the other hand, has Indy riding on a horse near a tank, climbing on the tank, fighting on the tank and doing a whole bunch of stuff around the tank, but without ever achieving or even looking likely to achieve any kind of objective. It's not clear what's going through his head, except sometimes "yikes, big outcrop". He never gets inside the tank. He never steers the tank. He makes a gun backfire, but otherwise he's being violent but oddly ineffectual and what finishes off the tank is going over a deus ex machina cliff that had nothing to do with him.
The appearance of the cliff peps up the sequence and gives it a lot more momentum, incidentally. Oh, and that's without getting into Connery and Elliott's geriatric knockabout inside the tank. They're endearing, but hardly scary or tense.
Meanwhile the River Phoenix opening is okay, but that's just the usual James Bond pre-credits sequence and I have a slight problem with Phoenix. The most successful action sequence is the one in Venice where Indy's attacked by anonymous fez-wearing Arabs who turn out to be (a) good guys and (b) a waste of space. Do they disappear from the movie after that, or does it merely seem that way?
Obviously there's still lots of wonderful stuff, because Spielberg's a consummate filmmaker. The "tied up while the room catches fire" scene, for instance, is brilliant, but it doesn't strike me as an action scene. I love it, of course. Has Connery ever been funnier than he is in this film? It involves physical jeopardy and great gags, but it's a scene I could imagine in a 1930s screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert. If you're looking purely for action scenes, there aren't as many in this movie as you'd think.
2. The plot's messy with its McGuffin. I don't mean the grail, but Connery's diary. It goes from pillar to post and even splits in two when Indy tears out some pages, from which point on we have two half-diaries either in the Nazis' hands or being stolen back. They get captured, recaptured and re-recaptured. You need a diagram to keep track. This wanted tightening and personally I'd have burned whichever half-diary was the more superfluous.
3. River Phoenix is giving a good impersonation of Harrison Ford, but a mediocre performance. "I don't know; I'll think of something" is so accurate that it's like Ford's reincarnation, but unfortunately Phoenix is letting this distract him from bringing alive the scenes and the physical gags. Being reminiscent of Ford becomes a problem, because he's not as good as him. He's not terrible and this is a subtle point that shouldn't bother most people, but it distracted me, as did the fanwank set-ups (hat, whip, snakes, etc.) For me, the only moment I loved in all that was Sean Connery telling Indy to count to twenty in Greek. That's a subtler bit of establishment, showing us the childhood of the academic and scholar who seems to be able to speak any language.
4. Alison Doody on the other hand is laughable. Comparing her with Karen Allen and Kate Capshaw is insulting. She's better when she's evil, but she's robotic at the beginning and a pop-eyed maniac at the end. She's a blonde block of wood and she's so bad that she even throws Ford off his game once or twice. Admittedly she's less important than Allen and Capshaw, because the sidekick is really going to be Connery. However she's still the Girl, a bit like a Bond Girl. She's Indy's love interest. The fact that she's terrible matters, especially since there's a decent chunk of the film (in Venice) when Connery's not around and it's the Ford-and-Doody show.
5. Second-string villains. I have nothing against Michael Byrne or the elegant Julian Glover, but they're hardly on a par with Ronald Lacey or Amrish Puri, are they? They're both less cool and less meaningful thematically. The thematic reason for Byrne's character being present is, well, because Spielberg and Lucas are harking back to Raiders and so it's Nazi time. Doody's betrayal has nothing obvious to do with father-son relationships, except to lead up to the "she talks in her sleep" gag (which is hardly an edifying raison d'etre for the film's only significant female character). Finally Glover is simply a greedy scholar who's sold out to the Nazis because he wants eternal life. I don't think the film even gives him a son, does it? That could have been a way to explore the theme from another angle, but it doesn't happen.
6. Too obviously a clone of Raiders of the Lost Ark
, even if the father-son relationship changes its tone. Both have Indiana, assisted by a girl, fighting Nazis before World War Two and chasing a father's archeological notes about the location of a Biblical artefact in the Middle East. There are rats instead of snakes and spiders. There's Denholm Elliott (who's arguably being turned into a cartoon of himself, but he's getting enough to do that I don't mind) and John Rhys-Davies (who's treated poorly, as if being a returning character means he doesn't need an introduction).
7. Toothlessness. Temple of Doom
was widely perceived as going too far with gore and horror, so Spielberg's pulled back. There's no gore! Even when a man gets decapitated, it's bloodless. The on-screen body count has dropped, unless you count people who were inside vehicles as they exploded.
8. Even the special effects look worse. There's some dodgy matting.
What's good though is Connery and Ford. Sean Connery is wonderful, although a really harsh critic might suggest that he could have found more emotion when he thinks he's lost his son. Nonetheless it's wonderful to watch him and the rapport he clearly found with Ford. For starters, he creates his character. We're told that he's an academic bookworm who'd be no good in the field and we think "but he's Sean Connery!" It sounds like outrageous casting against type... but Connery makes it work. He bumbles, beams and carefully doesn't have a clue. He never lets us think of "Indiana Jones meets 007", which is quite a feat given that Glover was the villain in For Your Eyes Only and Doody was the Bond girl in A View to a Kill. In fact, of the original trilogy, it's ironically this film that pulls Indiana Jones the furthest away from James Bond.
Connery saves the film, basically. He creates something special. He's Sean Connery, but also a pure-minded old buffer. "That's for blasphemy."
Meanwhile Spielberg's always worth watching. The film has lots of gags, many of which are funny. "No ticket!" The practical joke of who's Indy at the beginning is lost on us these days, since we know what's coming, but it's still fun if you can remind yourself of it. The action scenes also contain some great stuff, even though as a whole they're not up to the earlier films. I love the "go between them" misunderstanding, while there's something downright magnificent about Indy standing on that boat being chopped up by a propellor.
Quick quibbles. No, not the catacombs in Venice. Indiana stops his motorbike at a signpost marked "Berlin" and "Venice", but they're nearly 500 miles apart! (That's about 800 km.) Also, why didn't Glover just drag in a hundred flunkies at the end and make each one drink from a cup to find the safe one?
As I said, this isn't a bad film at all. It's been unkind of me to keep comparing it to Raiders, because its strengths and tone are very different. For starters, it's funnier! It also has a plot-shaped plot, themes and no final deus ex machina, for the first time in this series. Note the way that expectations are inverted and almost every single character isn't what they seem, while the father-son material between Ford and Connery is excellent (and not at all groanworthy, which is mildly surprising for a Hollywood film). Harrison Ford's anti-Scottish accent in the castle is worth the price of admission on its own. Furthermore it's as good as ever to see Spielberg doing Nazis. We have book-burning and even an appearance from Hitler himself, played by an uncredited Michael Sheard.
However its best stuff is in the middle with Ford and Connery, once we're past the handicap of Doody. You'll like it better if you're not expecting an exciting action film on a par with the first two. Take it on its own merits and enjoy.