Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Welcome back to my week long re-watch of the best series of films to ever be released in American Cinemas, in my humble opinion at least. Today I’m reviewing what in my opinion is the weakest of the Indiana Jones movies, though even at that is a mostly enjoyable 2 hour adventure.
Raiders of the Lost ArK gets almost everything right, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom messes it all up. Still, it is a hard movie to hate. The problem is that it is impossible not to compare it to the rest of the series and it cannot hold up to that comparison. To Lucas and Spielberg’s credit and the movie’s detriment, they didn’t simply rehash Raiders. Temple of Doom is darker and despite being built around some supposedly cut Raiders’ set pieces more ambitious than the first movie. Unfortunately, its reach was beyond its grasp.
The first and biggest problem with Temple of Doom is its attempts to top Raiders of the Lost ArK. The attempts to make this one bigger pushes it beyond the limits of believability, both in the narrative itself and in the special effects. Indy’s feats were on the outer cusp of believability in Raiders, possible if improbable. With Temple possible is thrown right out of the window. Part of that is the tone of the film sung to the viewer in the opening musical number. Anything goes. (If you don’t enjoy the musical number this is definitely the wrong movie for you.) That holds throughout the movie. Anything goes in terms of what Indy is capable of. Have Indy jump out of a falling airplane on an inflatable life raft into a waterfall? Sure, why not. Anything goes. Too bad the special effects couldn’t quite make it believable. Indy’s greatest strength is in his humanity. That his adventures, while exotic and amazing, are within his abilities. The situations do not have to be even remotely believable. The magic stones and Indian murder cults are not this movie’s problems. Its biggest flaw is that often I do not believe that Indy could do what he is doing. Which is not that frequent, but it happens. Like the crash scene I mentioned already. He occasionally gets pushed out beyond his capabilities by the movies attempt to top Raiders. And while Raiders has the face melting scene, Temple of Doom is filled with effects that have aged poorly.
Anything goes with the tone as well. The villains are more visibly villainous, probably because no one need to be told how evil Nazi’s are. There are murders from the opening minutes. Not death by ancient trap, but actual murders. This movie is notably and intentionally darker than the rest of the series. It is right there in the title Temple of Doom. It is about Indiana Jones breaking up a child slavery ring. While it is darker, it is also goofier. Indy’s two sidekicks are wholly comic relief. Short Round is mostly enjoyable as Indy’s young double, though it has uncomfortable racist overtones. Willy Scott is a crime against the rest of this film. Marian was capable, if in over her head. Willy is completely out of place and wholly unlikable. She undermines the movies attempts to set up a central family dynamic among the three protagonists. She is even more of a child than Short Round. By the end of the film, the viewer is supposed to believe that they have grown together into a believable family unit, but the relationship between Indy and Willy never feels real. Indy and Short Round, however, become a very believable father/son duo. The setting and subject are much darker than the rest of the series, but it is counter by increasingly jokey and forced humor. Nowhere is the divide more visible than in the dinner scene at Pankot. While Indiana tries to get to the bottom of the rumors of the stolen stone and the rise of the Thuggee cult, Willy and Short Round face a farcical array of disgusting looking food. One side of the table is dark and mysterious, the other if filled with bad gross out jokes. Anything goes, no matter how schizophrenic it makes the experience.
While there are failures in tone and effect, they do not overwhelm the quality of the adventure. The opening scene in Shanghai is nearly perfect; from the song and dance routine to the chaotic shoot out to the car chase, it is a scene worthy of the best of the series. Once they get into the Temple, the movie picks up. Indy’s forcible induction into the Thuggee cult, through the Black sleep of Kali (reminiscent of Hot Potting from Rider Haggard’s She, though less murderous), lays it on a bit strong. It manages to continue the tone of being both startlingly dark and laughably silly at the same time. Telling, perhaps, is that Indy is saved by Short Round, not Willy. There is no chemistry between Indy and Willy; I can easily believe that the thought of sending her to her death wouldn’t snap him out of it. However, when Short Round arrives he does manage to snap Indy out of it. Those two have a connection that Willy doesn’t share.
The last half hour of Temple is a whirlwind that, aside from some badly aged special effects, is on par with Raiders. The freeing of the slave children is Indy at his put upon finest. From then on the film gets away from the purely dark and purely silly and is purely fun. The mine-cart chase sequence and the iconic confrontation on the bridge are both excellent scenes. They are bigger in scope than anything in the previous movie, but that doesn’t work to their advantage.
In all Temple of Doom is a flawed film. Indy is not quite the same character as he is in the rest of the series. He is more cynical and seems greedier. It feels as though Ford is playing Han Solo instead of Indiana Jones. The combination of the poorly conceived sidekicks, more Willy than Short Round, and the badly aged special effect keep this film from matching the rest of the series. As a simple adventure movie, it is fine. Slightly too dark for kids and slightly too silly for adults, but a reasonably pleasant ride for all that. Unfortunately, it is hard to view this movie without comparing it to its predecessor and sequels. In that light, it simply cannot hold up. Being the weakest film in an excellent series is the worst one can say about Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, but that is enough to get it damned in most circles.