LOS ANGELES Whether critics walked out of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" loving or hating it, most had something to say about Shia LaBeouf's dramatic entrance.
The 21-year-old actor plays Harrison Ford's sidekick in this fourth installment in the Indy franchise, and when he first appears on screen, he's a dead ringer for Marlon Brando's young punk in 1953's "The Wild One."
We're not talking a kinda-sorta resemblance. He's got the same off-kilter cap, same black leather jacket and he rides up on a motorcycle, full of 'tude. Brando played the leader of a biker gang that terrorized a small town back then. But LaBeouf? As young Mutt Williams, he's still a rebel in search of a cause in Steven Spielberg's latest blockbuster, set in 1957. And to his credit, the actor knows it.
"Steven wrote a little note on my script that said, 'OK, now it's time to transform yourself into Mutt! Signed, Steven,' and then he gave me three movies to watch," LaBeouf says in the film's production notes. They were: "Blackboard Jungle," "Rebel Without a Cause" and wouldn't you know it? "The Wild One."
"As though I was supposed to go home and watch 'The Wild One' and go, 'Oh yeah, I see how Marlon Brando did it!"' he adds.
But how convincing is LaBeouf? Most critics reviewing "Crystal Skull" mention the homage merely in passing, without passing judgment.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said the young actor is "introduced as a total copy of Marlon Brando on a motorcycle in 'The Wild One,"' and adds, "LaBeouf doesn't seem completely comfortable in his disaffected teen role, a part that does not play to the innate likability that is one of his strengths."
In a rare pan of the movie, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips said disdainfully that LaBeouf's entrance "rips off Brando." And Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice newspaper chain riffs that he's "The Mild One."
It certainly wasn't easy for costume designer Mary Zophres, whose job it was to come up with LaBeouf's trademark ensemble of leather jackets and motorcycle boots. She and colleague Jenny Eagan found several vintage jackets and had LaBeouf try them all on until they discovered the one that looked best. Then they had to recreate it several times.
"Mutt was inspired by Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One,"' Zophres says in the press notes, continuing the theme. "We had to make about 30 of those motorcycle jackets because Shia does a lot of stunts and his costume got worn and dirty."
Fans of the former child star, who won a Daytime Emmy in 2003 for the Disney Channel series "Even Stevens," may have a hard time accepting him as a tough guy. But as LaBeouf said last year in an interview with The Associated Press when rumors of his casting in "Indiana Jones" were swirling but still unconfirmed this is a transition he's been planning for a long time.
"I want to get bigger. I'm sick of being a boy," LaBeouf said then of his workout regimen while promoting the teen thriller "Disturbia."
"I know that there's this innocence that I have but I feel like I've played that guy. The whole goal for me has been diversity and diversifying your portfolio and making sure you do a whole bunch of different things and you don't get typecast. If I become a type, my career is over.
"I want to be an intimidating presence. I want to be a ... killer."
There's still plenty of time for LaBeouf to prove himself. If you read into the symbolism at the end of the movie, Mutt may eventually have to trade in his cap and leather jacket for Indy's famous fedora and bullwhip.