With most of our action movie icons, there are easily identifiable trademarks: John Wayne’s pigeon-toed swagger and slow-rolling drawl; Humphrey Bogart’s facial twitches and muted trombone growl; Clint Eastwood’s narrow squints and freeze-dried rasp. Drop Gary Cooper’s laconic fortitude, Robert Mitchum’s sloe-eyed diffidence and Charles Bronson’s brawny truculence into this discussion and you can summon waves of other examples.
Harrison Ford? Hmmm ... let’s see ... what is it that jumps out in front of you when thinking of one of the biggest action stars of the last 30-something years? What would your garden-variety Vegas comic use as fodder for a Harrison Ford impression? Besides a bullwhip or a ray gun? Can’t think of any, right? Neither can we.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Ian McDiarmid
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 22 May 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 May 2008 (General release); 2008)
You really have to reach to find an idiosyncrasy in Ford that can be stretched to satiric excess. (Yes, there’s that scar on his chin that some say is his most distinguishing characteristic. Forget it. You can’t exaggerate a scar the way you can, say, Burt Lancaster’s toothy grin.) Still, in a post-television and (maybe now) post-ironic era of movie stardom, it’s just possible that Ford’s very lack of a conspicuous trademark has helped extend his capital as an action hero well into the 21st century.
On Thursday, a couple of months shy of his 66th birthday, Ford returns in what may well be his most indelible cinematic incarnation in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” This is the fourth time Ford has taken up the battered fedora, leather jacket and that aforementioned bullwhip of his two-fisted archaeologist alter-ego - and the first time in almost 20 years.
You’d think that if director Steven Spielberg and company wanted to jump-start this franchise after such a long interval, they could have found someone younger to wear Indiana Jones’ costume. Apparently, this wasn’t close to being an option. And it shouldn’t have been.
Who besides Ford best embodies the agreeable and accessible combination of He-Man and Everyman that Indiana Jones carries into pursuit of fame and glory? Who else could best enact the role of someone suddenly confronted with overwhelming odds, but ruggedly equipped to overcome them with seat-of-the-pants aplomb?
Well ... OK, Bruce Willis does that stuff, too, though his hipper, flashier approach offers a greater contrast to Ford’s more stolid action archetype. What’s more, Ford can slip into self-deprecation a lot easier than Willis can maintain a straight face for a whole movie. And where Willis got a head start from TV stardom, Ford’s emergence from the shadow land of walk-ons and secondary roles in such movies as “American Graffiti” (1973) (Where have you gone, Bob Falfa?), “The Conversation” (1974) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) makes his ascent into stardom almost as wildly improbable as one of Indiana Jones’ hairbreadth escapes.
And yet, since at least the turn of the century, things have been kind of sluggish in the Harrison Ford theme park. Most of his movies in the past decade have been rehashed suspense vehicles such as “What Lies Beneath” (2000) and “Firewall” (2006) and ponderous romances such as “Random Hearts” (1999). His body of work has never been consistent; sometimes he’s a too-passive presence, even when he’s in the starring role - as in “Regarding Henry” (1991) or “The Fugitive” (1993).
It’s still possible, even with such uneven patterns, to come up with a subjective top 10 list of Harrison Ford movies:
1. “Blade Runner” (1982) - Ford all but disowned this futuristic noir thriller when it was first released because, among other things, he wasn’t fond of the off-screen narration. Since the movie’s rerelease under director Ridley Scott’s revisions, even Ford has come to share the prevailing opinion that this is a classic of science fiction filmmaking - and that, just maybe, his sour, sodden robot killer Rick Deckard is the role for which he’ll be best remembered no matter what the real future looks like.
2. “The Mosquito Coast” (1986) - Ford should have received serious Oscar consideration as the quixotic engineer who moves himself and his family to a Central American rain forest where he wants to build an ice factory. (Trivia note: The late River Phoenix, who portrayed the young Indy in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” played Ford’s son here.)
3. “Frantic” (1988) - As with “Mosquito Coast,” this Hitchcockian thriller by Roman Polanski remains undervalued, as does Ford’s performance, one of his very best, as a doctor scampering along Paris streets and rooftops in search of his missing spouse. Rarely was his normal-guy-under-intense-pressure persona better served - and better enacted.
4. “Star Wars Episode VI: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) - This remains, by far, the best of the Skywalker Chronicles and it’s Ford’s show for much of the way. When we think fondly of Han Solo in his wiseacre, swashbuckling glory, this is the movie we think of first. Apparently, it was Ford’s idea to say “I know” to the “I love you” of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia just before Han gets put in deep freeze. That moment may have been all Ford needed to make him a star, leading him inexorably to…
5. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) - “I’m just making it up as I go along,” Ford’s Indy says at one point. Never was the essence of can-do Americana better encapsulated in a movie where poisonous snakes, with and without Nazi armbands, figured prominently. In both this film and “Empire,” one is struck by how totally loose and funny he is throughout. (Maybe he needed Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote both scripts, on permanent retainer.)
6. “Witness” (1985) - Ford’s only Oscar nomination came for his performance as a Philadelphia police detective hiding in an Amish village to protect a young boy and his mother (Kelly McGillis) from crooked cops. It was a droll, deft and often touching performance, if not necessarily his best.
7. “Air Force One” (1997) - Either it’s a Reagan-era rouser coming 10 years too late or a post-9/11 morale booster surfacing about five years too soon. And yet, Ford drives home the ludicrous idea of a butt-kicking chief executive literally shoving ruthless terrorists off his plane.
8. “Hollywood Homicide” (2003) - Through the oaken visage he’d started to cultivate in middle age, Ford allowed a welcome - and lately, too rare - view of his wry-guy side to leak into his portrayal of an LAPD detective moonlighting as a real-estate agent for Southern California’s nouveau riche.
9. “Patriot Games” (1992) - Ford was, by this time, too old to play Tom Clancy’s dauntless CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Yet his leathery professionalism served him well enough to carry him into a second, if more lugubrious, Ryan movie, “Clear and Present Danger” (1994).
10. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) - Sean Connery, who played Indy’s roguish, owlish pop, was once regarded by Ford as something of a role model, and their jocular byplay elevates what could have been an overcooked sequel into an enjoyable comedic cruise.
That Ford has chosen to once again take up the bullwhip and fedora suggests (OK, more than suggests) that he’s ready to have fun again. What’s implied by the items cited above is that whenever he has fun, we do, too. That simple equation may add up to big numbers for “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” assuming - and it’s a big assumption - that we don’t think it’s ridiculous for a grizzled old man to hang from ceilings, car bumpers and cliffs.