I used to not like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Now I like it. In fact, I think it is the second best Indiana Jones movie.
Unless you are one of the more annoying contrarian film buffs, there seems to be a consensus about the best and the worst Indiana Jones movies.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a masterpiece of popcorn entertainment. It is the perfect combination of Steven Spielberg’s crowd pleasing style, George Lucas’ imagination, Lawrence Kasdan’s dialogue and Harrison Ford’s dynamic on screen charisma. The production values from the gifted cast to Norman Reynolds’ design to ILM’s visual effects and John Williams unforgettable score all served to tell a fabulous story punctuated by a relentless pace best symbolized by the boulder chasing Indy through the Peruvian temple.
On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the dreadful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Besides having one preposition too many in the title, the film was a grotesque mistake right from the first shot of a prairie dog popping out of the ground. Not since Never Say Never Again did we witness a one time cool movie hero plod through a tired adventure while showing their age awkwardly. From the muddled plot to the horrible effects and the exhausted looks on the stars, by the end the nuked fridge and Shia LeBeouf were not even the worst parts of the film. The less said about that blatant cash grab, the better.
Common wisdom says that 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a disappointing misfire whose weak characters and story were a huge step back from Raiders. It was outgrossed by Ghostbusters, an unheard of result since Spielberg and Lucas dominated every summer of the 1980s up until that point. Instead of the tough and hard drinking Marion, we got shrill and unfunny Willie Scott (soon to be Mrs. Steven Spielberg.) Sallah and Marcus Brody gave way to Short Round, an obvious ploy to get younger kids interested in the series. And compared to the Nazi’s harnessing the power of God through the Ark, the three Shankara Stones, that looked like they were expelled from the anus of a buffalo, just did not cut it.
Temple of Doom had plot holes big enough to roll a giant rock through. Why did Willie Scott get on the plane with Indy? Why did the Thugees use children and not grown men to do the mining? Was Pankot Palace a hotel that you can just check into? Wouldn’t all that water Mola Ram used to flood the mine shaft fall into the lava pits? And the mine car jumped the track and landed perfectly on another? I call bullshit.
1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is almost universally considered to be a return to form in the series and the movie that redeemed the franchise. It looked and felt more like Raiders. Sallah and Marcus Brody were back. We saw Indy back teaching. The Nazis were the bad guys again. (Note that Hitler was played by the same guy who was Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back.) There was even a wink to the audience about Raiders when Indy sees a picture of the Ark of the Covenant on the Venetian catacomb wall. And once again he was after a Biblical artifact with Godly powers.
Plus now Spielberg and company had Sean Connery to breathe life into the series. Just six years removed from embarrassing himself in Never Say Never Again, Connery was fresh off of an Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables and seemed content in his new on screen role of supporting younger action stars. Ford and Connery had terrific chemistry and the audience totally bought that they were father and son.
My mother has described Raiders as an addictive movie. By that she means that if it is on TV and you flip past it, you stay on it until the very end. And I would have to agree. Many times I find myself saying “Oh let me watch this one scene” and next thing I know, I’m watching the crate with the ark in it being pushed through the warehouse.
The action scenes, the set pieces and the heart pounding pace of the movie make it impossible to tear away.
Compare that to Last Crusade. Now while the story is sound and Ford and Connery are great, how many scenes are really that memorable and exciting? Flipping through the channels, would you really stop and say “Oh wait, here is the awkward airplane dog fight with terrible blue screen effects?”
The big action sequences include the contrived chase through the circus train with young Indy, a motor boat chase that has one good crash, the aforementioned dog fight, and a motorcycle joust. That last sequence was added after the initial rough cut because Spielberg and Lucas realized the film needed more action, so it was tacked on and brings little to the story.
The tank fight is indeed terrific and it is the highlight of the movie, even though the final crash looked phony. And Indy doing the challenges to get to the grail was fun. But the Grail Knight was silly and a limp follow up to the Ark melting Nazi faces. Then it just kind of sort of ends. On paper it is a return to the look and feel of Raiders. But in retrospect, it seems kind of safe.
Compare that to Temple of Doom. Think about the movie without focusing on the story and character problems. (Which would bring up the quip that almost references Spielberg’s most recent film, “Besides that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”)
Think about the film simply as a roller coaster ride and as a fun escapist film.
From the opening sequence, it became clear that this film was not going to play it safe. Instead of starting in the jungle in search of an artifact, the movie begins with a musical number right out of Busby Berkeley. When I first saw the movie as a 12 year old, this opening made me scratch my head. Now, nearly 30 years later, I get it.
The song was “Anything Goes” and indeed anything did. Spielberg and company were basically saying “You think we are just going to rehash Raiders? Screw that. Let’s open it with a song and dance and have Indy dressed in a tux. You won’t know where we are taking you!”
The scene in Club Obi-Wan (no really, that was what it was called) works, even though Willie Scott delivers some groan worthy lines. Indy and Lao squabble over the diamond, Indy gets poisoned, his friend gets shot and one of the henchmen gets a flaming shish-kebob thrown into his gut. And THEN the fun begins. The fight in the club, which featured machine guns, a cymbal used as a deadly Frisbee, rolling gongs and a staggering Indy walking into a kickline of chorus girls, also had a moment of sick humor that probably could never be replicated.
At one point, Indy gets punched in the face. In the confusion of the fight and in a poison filled haze, he turns around punches out a cigarette girl. Was that politically incorrect and possibly mean? You bet. Did it fit into the feel of total chaos and an inability to predict where the film was going? You bet.
Indy and Willie jump out the window, through the awnings and into the car driven by Short Round who has a box attached to his shoe to reach the accelerator. The car chase is fun, complete with the rickshaw collision. Then at the airport (with a blink and you will miss it cameo by Dan Aykroyd) Indy laughs at Lao Che, shutting the plane door to reveal it is Lao’s plane. That is probably the single funniest sight gag in the entire series, rivaled only by shooting the Arabian swordsman in Raiders.
And that gag also was a message to the audience. “Indy escaped in the first one when he got on the plane. In THIS one, he is in even more danger.”
The China sequence was so much fun that sometimes I wish the India scene was the opening and the rest took place with Lao as the main bad guy, but I digress.
The escape from the plane is admittedly silly. But the shot of nobody flying the plane and Indy looking out at the Himalayas with no fuel in the plane are both terrific. Once in India, the remote control factor kicks in.
Sure the plot makes no real sense by the time they reach Pankot Palace. But the film moves from one terrific set piece to another. Indy and Short Round trapped in the spike room while Willie is covered in bugs is one of the best sequences in the series. It also includes Harrison Ford’s hilarious “We are going to die!” line reading.
The next scene after that? They witness the ripping out of a human heart in the actual Temple of Doom. That scene, which kickstarted the PG-13 rating, is always worth of a look. The film continues to speed along with great action scenes. Indy fights Pat Roach as the Thugee Guard (not to be confused with Pat Roach as a Nazi mechanic) and pushes him into the crusher. That leads to the mine car chase and the flooded mine shaft. And it ends with my second favorite scene in the movie, the cutting of the rope bridge.
Those are a lot of scenes that work and are fun. In the course of a popcorn adventure film, getting a few memorable adventure set pieces is all you can honestly hope for. Temple of Doom delivered with five or six truly memorable and exciting sequences.
Then why did it suffer from such a backlash? Perhaps, like Jaws 2, its biggest sin was not being as good as the original Spielberg masterpiece. Perhaps the bar was so high after Raiders that anything less would be an inevitable let down.
And maybe people were expecting the quality of the series to go up a notch in a similar way that The Empire Strikes Back raised the game in the Star Wars saga.
The lesson that Spielberg and Lucas seemed to learn from Temple of Doom was to not stray too far from Raiders. So with Last Crusade, they did not demonstrate the same fearlessness and essentially created a Raiders of the Lost Ark flavored product.
But when it comes to “the remote control factor,” Temple of Doom is outstanding. Is it as good as Raiders? No. Few action films are. But Temple of Doom deserves a better reputation for delivering the goods and being exactly what anyone would expect from a summer movie: It is fun. There is nothing wrong with that.