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PICTURE IT, it's 1938. Indiana Jones is on a tramp steamer off the Portuguese coast. He is battling bad guys for possession of an ancient relic while murderous Atlantic winds are howling and sending 20-foot waves crashing over his broad shoulders. (If Kipling's Captains Courageous had seen such winds and waves, they'd have gone AWOL immediately and been busted back down to ensign.)

Just as Indy succeeds in swiping the precious ancient artifact for posterity and is tossed into the thundering, heaving sea, the ship blows up.

Cut to a few days later. College professor Henry Jones Jr. (Indy's real name; his father even calls him "Junior") is lecturing at the blackboard.

"Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library," he says with the patented didactic harrumph of pedagogy.

That's one of the things I find irresistible about the three delightful Indiana Jones adventures that producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have conjured out of old '30s and '40s movie serials. All of them postulate globe-trotting daredeviltry and Nazi-busting derring-do as the secret life of academic intellectuals. (It's a reflection, of course, on all those great '30s and '40s creators who invented a fulminating national fantasy life out of their own hopeless wimpitude. One way or another, the great creators of American pop culture were Walter Mittys to a man.)

The newest "Indiana Jones" blockbuster is called "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," and it's a Jones family generational bash. It opens today, rated PG-13, at the University, Market Arcade, McKinley and Hoyts Walden Galleria theaters. If you plan to see it in the first few weeks, you'd best get there early.

The movie opens in 1912, as young Boy Scout Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) battles evil relic snatchers down the length of a circus train crawling with snakes and alligators.

Most of it, though, is a father and son duo as a grown-up Indy (Harrison Ford) and his absent-minded medievalist father (Sean Connery) dodge the nefarious doings of Nazi swine as they all set off after nothing less than the Holy Grail.

Part of the cheesier mythology of cultural opinioneering is that everything eventually turns into curds and whey. Let anything age a bit or dare to repeat itself and the immediate assumption is that it has become a decadent shadow of its former glory.

In this case, put mini-moguls like Lucas and Spielberg together in one of the most successful comedy-adventure series in the history of movies and the mean-spirited will line up around the block looking for evidence of collaborative exhaustion, boredom and failing powers.

They can line up with everyone else at "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," but they'll have to seek wholesale evidence of failing powers elsewhere. Yes, a lot of the "gee whiz" is gone and there is indeed a faint sense of exhaustion in the opening. And yes, the booby-trapped cave of the finale isn't exactly a triumph of set design, but Spielberg, Lucas and company know the secret rules of mounting sequels.

Rule No. 1 is to up the humor quotient. Rule No. 2 is to put another powerhouse presence in front of the camera.

As soon as Sean Connery was signed to co-star with Harrison Ford in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the movie couldn't fail. It was, as they say out in cloudland, "a lock."

As father and son, Connery and Ford are delightful together. In search of the Holy Grail, they ride tanks, planes, dirigibles and motorcycles; and they dodge fires, bullets and explosions while getting caught in Nazi rallys and hidden doors.

And all the while, Ford's and Connery's relationship is wonderfully droll. It's as if the fastidious elder Jones were constantly confronted by a promising and well-meaning son who can never keep his shirttails in.

When Indiana rescues his long-lost father from a Nazi fortress, he has to slaughter a room full of Nazis along the way. "Look what you did," says his father disapprovingly at the bodies. It's the same tone of voice a father might use if his son had dropped a case of ale on the kitchen floor.

In his senior years, Connery has turned into a delightful second banana for younger movie stars. Now that the starring pressure is off him, he seems to have entered into an incomparably sly second professional life. His beery, burry blasphemies about "The Chicago Way" were the best thing about Brian DePalma's "The Untouchables," and his wonderfully fussy and paternal expressions of shock and disappointment are the best thing in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

As if Connery weren't enough to bolster the cause, that crafty old character actor Denholm Elliott is also along for a good part of the ride.

Lucas and Spielberg may be the masters of the "Toys 'R' Us" school of contemporary cinema, but there's ample evidence that Spielberg, at least, is growing up. He knows the inestimable value of having wily old foxes like Connery and Elliott do their stuff on-screen.

Oscar watchers will remember Spielberg's "remember-the-written-word" speech on receiving the Irving Thalberg Award as they watch the horrific scenes of Nazi book-burning here.

Anyone who saw the Wagnerian fantasy of Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" might guess that the day would come when Spielberg would mount a pop "Parsifal" for real. This is it.

While waiting to see if the Jones boys or the Nazis will capture the Holy Grail, Spielberg and Lucas cram the movie with John Williams' Holy Grail music and yet another ton of those glorious hairbreadth escapes that filled the serials of the '30s and '40s -- speedboat and tank crashes, for instance, that couldn't possibly be survived but which always are.

The spirit of the Indiana Jones movies is pure '40s, and Lucas and Spielberg were cunning enough not to violate it the third time around.

All concerned say that this is the end of Indiana Jones, the end the series that began with "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

I'm not buying it. This thing looks as if it was almost as much fun to make as it was arduous (the quiet mugging of Connery, Ford and Elliott alone would be enough to keep cast and crew chuckling for days).

Besides, the way my consultants and I sorted out what actually happens in the final hocus-pocus mysticism of the plot, Indiana Jones is all set to live forever.

I don't know about forever, but my money is on at least one more round. And all things considered, why not?

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