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What happened to my Indiana Jones?

The first film my parents rented after purchasing their shiny new VCR was "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It was 1985, and I was about to have my seething little mind blown after witnessing asp pits, giant boulders and Nazi faces melted by a biblical superweapon.

One screen in particular still stands out. Indiana Jones had just beaten up a bunch of Nazi thugs under the brutal Middle Eastern sun. Indy is plenty sweaty and angry when a crowd parts to reveal an expert swordsman clutching massive scimitars challenging him to a brawl. Indy, in one of the most hilarious acts of celluloid nihilism ever filmed, simply pulls his pistol and guns the swordsman down, leaving the crowd stunned in horror.

Legend has it, the script called for Indy to use his whip to yank the swords from the bad guy's hands, but Harrison Ford was reportedly suffering from a terrible case of food poisoning that day and balked at performing any stunts. Steven Spielberg, to his credit, told him to just shoot the guy, and, alas, screen history was made.

Unfortunately, there are no such scenes in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Yes, I was there at 12:03 a.m. Thursday morning at Cinemark Tinseltown USA hoping against hope that clever, entertaining pop cinema could trump nostalgia and make "Kingdom" as refreshing to me, now that I'm old and broken, as "Raiders" did when I had something to offer the world.

Chalk one up for nostalgia, not that it's a bad thing. But I am growing weary of films banking on my warm-and-fuzzy '80s feelings to buoy Hollywood for another year.

"Kingdom" wasn't necessarily a bad summer flick. I'm sure by year's end it will stack up well against "Speed Racer'' and that godforsaken "Chronicles of Narnia'' sequel.

Spielberg still knows his way around spectacle, and "Kingdom" flies off the screen in the opening half hour when we are handed one explosive set piece after another, all of which creaky old Ford handles with verve. Ford is at his best here, playing Indy with an ironic grin throughout. There were times I felt Ford was going to stare directly at the camera and give the multitudes a wink.

In fact, the reviews, though mostly positive according to Rottentomatoes.com, told the story despite themselves. When browsing the critics' takes I notice the words "serviceable,'' ''familiar'' and ''predictable" popping up in nearly every so-called glowing review.

What I missed was the nastiness of the previous Indy films. Anyone who dismisses the Indy trilogy as kid's play must have forgotten the exploding heads, melting faces, beating hearts ripped out of chests, graphic child abuse and that painfully long acid trip scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" that turned Indy into a kid-torturing zombie.

The fact is, Indiana Jones is one of the least likeable heroes in modern screen history. The guy is a confirmed atheist, treats women like objects, yells at his father a lot and has killed literally hundreds of people in his quest to ... collect high-end museum pieces?

"Doom" is one of the most disturbing films ever fed to a mainstream audience. I remember hiding behind my chair as the slave bosses in the mine beat up little kids and whipped them mercilessly while they cried and begged. And the sexually ambiguous evil prince character was a nightmare straight out of Kraft-Ebbing. Dig the way the prince's eyes bulged in arousal as Indy's sidekick Short Round was held down and whipped by some hairy freak. And this was marketed as a kid's movie?

Even "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the trilogy's original swan song, featured its share of beheadings and an eerily staged Nazi book burning rally.

"Kingdom" plays it safe, giving us lots of action — a nuclear bomb goes off at one point, which is cool — but it didn't overstep its bounds. George Lucas intended the trilogy to mimic the adventure serials of the '40s he absorbed as a kid. Spielberg, 2,000 times the filmmaker Lucas would ever be, took that idea and put his own dark stamp on the material. The serials featured lots of action and adventure, and not a little overt racism, but showed little consequence.

Spielberg snuck the violence into the original Indy films as a way of reminding us that, yes, you are seeing pure boyhood fantasy, but don't forget that fantasies can be crude and scary.

Who can forget Indy having the crap kicked out of him by the bald Nazi brute in "Raiders" only to luck out by having the bad buy chopped to a bloody mist in an airplane propeller. Yay, Indy, you showed him!

It is to be expected that "Kingdom" took a lighter tone, as Spielberg has lately gone super soft on his blockbuster stuff. I'll never forgive him for tinkering with "E.T." by digitally "enhancing'' the film by replacing the cops' guns with walkie talkies and removing the puppet E.T. and shoving in a video game character in its place.

I know I must sound like a sadistic ghoul by complaining that a film doesn't have enough exploding heads and Nazis. I came to the Indy movies looking for excitement, but stayed for the subversion.

I grew up. Sorry, Indy, but I had no choice.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.