Synopsis: Archaeologist Indiana Jones races against time to retrieve a legendary artifact that can change the course of history.
Stars: Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Thomas Kretschmann, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters, Ethann Isidore, Mads Mikkelsen
Director: James Mangold
Running Length: 154 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Let’s start with some ground rules. We will not talk trash about 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We just won’t be doing that. Why, may you ask? Well, when you wait twenty years for a sequel, and it doesn’t live up to your ridiculously high expectations, you don’t fault the sequel; you blame the viewer. That’s my opinion. I will go on record saying that Crystal Skull is not on par with the three previous adventures of Harrison Ford’s famed adventurer that had set a high bar throughout the ‘80s. Still, I won’t drag it for being anything other than the perfectly fine fourth chapter of a franchise I hold in high regard.
With that out of the way, now you’ll want to know about Ford’s newest (and last? I’m not saying.) outing as Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., right? Audiences have waited nearly as long (15 years) between the fourth and fifth chapters as they did previously, so it feels like the same kind of anticipation has ramped itself up, making Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny already under a massive microscope before anyone ever saw it. Then there was the fact that series director Steven Spielberg handed over the reins to James Mangold (Ford v Ferrari) and the frequent jokes about Ford’s advanced age (79 at the time of filming, 80 when released), plus countless rumors about silly plot details that were debunked as shooting progressed (Indy in space?) and what should have been a joyous return of a beloved character started to be mired in pre-release muck.
Well, let me assure you that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a rambunctious nod to what has come before and takes a confident stance at becoming its own entity simultaneously. It references previous entries and cuts its path forward by taking what we loved about Ford’s character and quirks and crafting a typically globe-trotting treasure hunt around them. Long-time devotees following along closely will get their Easter eggs, some small and some large, but none obnoxiously smashed in your face like desperate fan-service reboots are wont to do. More than anything, Mangold and his co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and David Koepp have allowed Ford room to do the stretching out as a performer that he has shown a keen interest in as of late.
A prologue set in 1944 (re)introduces us to Indiana Jones (Ford has been de-aged quite nicely here) after Nazis captured him at Nuremberg Castle. While there to make off with another artifact, he overhears Jürgen Voller’s (Mads Mikkelsen, Chaos Walking) procurement of an ancient device designed by Archimedes that is said to give the user the power to travel through time. Requiring two halves to work, Indy makes off with the one half in Voller’s possession while on a speeding train, the first of the film’s numerous boffo action sequences.
Moving forward to New York in 1969, Indy has just retired from teaching and long since put away the leather jacket and matching hat. A chance visit from archaeologist goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Goodbye Christopher Robin) coincides with the arrival of henchmen working for the CIA. Shaw and the CIA want the same thing from Indy, the location of the device he stole back in 1944 so the second half can be found reunited with the first. Its location and unknown power will send Indy, Helena, and a whole crew of the good, the bad, and the Nazi worldwide in a race to be the first to face a dangerous destiny.
Each of these Indy adventures has the same type of set-up so the viewer well-versed in the franchise can feel the script’s beats coming from a distance. That doesn’t mean what the screenwriters have worked up is boring, though. There’s a palpable energy from the jump and a real sense of unpredictability until the satisfying finale. While I wouldn’t say Dial of Destiny was made for “the fans,” it was undoubtedly made with their approval in mind. It never plays down to a lower denominator to appease those that didn’t like the previous film, but rather it skims a bit of the best parts of the four earlier chapters and then makes its own spin on that.
All the naysayers who said Ford (Blade Runner 2049) was too old for this need to return to eating their porridge. While relying on stunt doubles for the massively hard stuff, the actor still gets the job done in the rugged way only he can truly accomplish. There’s also a shot of him very early on that must have been included to say, “This is me at 79…and how in shape are you?”. I can’t say that I was bowled over by Waller-Bridge, mostly because her character is aggravatingly in opposition to Ford for much of the film. That kind of oil and water mix worked on 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark because it fed into the romantic chemistry between Ford and Karen Allen (still one of Ford’s best co-stars of all time), but here it comes off as an annoyance. As much as I love Mikkelsen, playing this type of villain is second nature and not much of a stretch, so this feels like a repeat of earlier work, same for Boyd Holbrook (The Host) as Voller’s toothy muscle man. Holbrook seems to channel a Billy Bob Thornton guise for his brute, often entering the room teeth first.
Although Spielberg remains an Executive Producer (along with George Lucas), I can’t help but wonder what he might have done with this material. That’s no slight to Mangold, who keeps things buzzing along nicely, but Spielberg was always able to bring a different kind of lightness to an Indy flick, and that zip is missing here. As much as Mangold attempts to retain that, it’s just a quality Spielberg has perfected over time. By and large, the film fits in nicely with its predecessors, and stylistically Mangold speaks the same Spielbergian language throughout.
Once an assured blockbuster release, I’m not sure if modern audiences that didn’t grow up on this character will cross rickety bridges or drink from a carpenter’s cup to see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Too much time has passed between the films that it could be a hard sell, especially with existing fans who insist on holding a Crystal Skull grudge. I was nervous and excited when it was announced and even more thrilled to be watching it. When it was over, I had the same feeling I experienced in the summer of 1989 after seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (still my favorite): giddy at the fun of it all and looking forward to seeing it again soon.