This is the Never Say Never Again of the Indy franchise with a curious sense not everything is up to peak creativity, and perhaps the filmmakers should have heeded the final three words of that creed. James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (C+), chronicling the raiders of a steampunk timepiece with rumored time travel powers, showcases the famed professor/archaeologist with both a murky de-aged CGI uncanny valley of the kings effect as well as an unflattering portrait of the character’s creaky old age circa 1969. At no point is Harrison Ford’s performance credible: the young version is imbued with an old voice and recycled dead-eyed Polar expressions, and what’s on the senior menu doesn’t look capable of throwing those frequent punches at aging Nazis. The filmmakers are constantly futzing with their own rattly dials, as episodic spurts of action are often punctuated with sequences of insipid boredom, even in exotic ports of call ranging from Morocco to Sicily. Three prominent women are featured in the cast, and as Indy’s greedy goddaughter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the one of those whose character doesn’t connect much at all; in fact, she makes “Willie Scott” look better and better in retrospect. Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t get to vamp much as the villain either. It takes well into the mid point of the film to establish some of the emotional resonance and playfulness needed to propel any interest. Some final reel wild swings (thankfully not with monkeys this time around) actually worked because at least it felt like something novel was finally happening. Some of the practical effects including chases through twisty African marketplaces and advancing through tomb passageways are better than expected; the cinematography and production design sometimes hit their marks. Mangold does well enough to crack that whip Steven Spielberg brandished for four previous installments in an uphill battle to credibly close the series. It’s far from an embarrassment but doesn’t fully fire on all cylinders, and the elegiac elements involved in themes of recapturing youthful glory feel almost accidental. The humor and high adventure of the series’ first three films is simply not matched here, making it ever so clear it’s time to hang up that hat.
Can we pretend the Indy films were just a trilogy? Because from the opening moment when the prairie dog pops his head out of the ground to the sequences with young sidekick Shia LaBeouf swinging from trees with monkeys, I found Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (D+) stomped on many elements this franchise held sacred. Harrison Ford gives a truly haggard performance opposite Cate Blanchett as a Russian villain, also phoning it in. There is also a survivable nuclear blast and a UFO visit. And surprisingly, there’s not one interestingly staged action sequence. There are cameos from past movies, and then those characters are given nothing interesting to do. This is the only film in the series in which the quest isn’t well articulated, in which the characters are lazy and cynical and in which there’s little joy or continuity from scene to scene. A 19-year hiatus between films should have yielded better than this. It’s an epic misfire.
Adding to the charm Harrison Ford brings to the heroic role, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (A) layers in a flashback sequence with River Phoenix as Young Indy and introduces an inspired casting companion: Sean Connery as Indy’s dad. The two Joneses go on a quest to find the Holy Grail (before the Nazis get it, of course!). The family dynamic helps make fresh what might otherwise feel like a retread. We get exotic locales from Italy to Jordan and a highly sentimental set of sequences as father-son bonding and bickering become a major part of the equation. Since Indiana Jones was always Spielberg’s James Bond type franchise, the pairing of Indy with the original 007 is a great casting excavation. It’s a triumphant send-off for a trilogy of outstanding action films; I’ll try to forget that a misguided follow-up happens many years later.
Steven Spielberg pulls out all the stops and emphasizes an “anything goes” theme with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (A-) as Harrison Ford’s titular protagonist helps a village in India try to recover sacred stones that have been stolen by a cult of villains who have been kidnapping and sacrificing children. The sidekicks are a bit grating this time around (Kate Capshaw and Jonathan Ke Quan) and the supernatural mumbo jumbo a bit less grounded, but the stunts and pratfalls and mishaps and menace are simply spectacular. It’s thrill-a-minute wall-to-wall action with even more crazy mischief than its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (A+) is a rollercoaster ride through history as archeologist protagonist Indiana Jones races against time to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. It is said to have powers that will protect an army; in the wrong hands, it could help evil forces conquer the world. Spielberg gives his grizzled hero simple tools (a bullwhip, an occasional map), a spunky girlfriend (Karen Allen) and a globetrotting trip from Peru to Egypt and beyond as he chases antiquities. Harrison Ford is at his very best in this role; and the effects and stunts are epic. This is one of the great modern adventures, told with wide-eyed wit and wisdom.