Indy’s (likely) swan song fails to reach the heights of the franchise but also nimbly dodges its lows.
Some 19 years elapsed between the release of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade in 1989 and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The fourth film, one of the most anticipated of the year and arguably of the naughty aughties, received a flurry of positive reviews.
They quickly gave way to arguably more cool-headed evaluations. In the end, both extremes were flawed. The positive reviews were likely so happy to see Indy (Harrison Ford) again that they overdid. The negative criticisms were too hung up on it not being perfect or what they wanted that they couldn’t see the things the film did well.
A comparatively brief 15 years later, Ford is back in his pinch front fedora and bomber jacket for another go-round. Gone is Steven Spielberg in the directing chair. A story by George Lucas is nowhere to be seen.
Instead, James Mangold takes on directing duties and joins a trio of other writers—Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and David Koepp—on scripting duties. Does it prove a more suitable sendoff for the almost certainly done with this all Ford? While it isn’t Raiders or Last Crusade, it sure isn’t Temple of Doom or Crystal Skull, either.
Making Ford Work For You
After a flashback to Jones’ Nazi punching heyday that sees him rescue friend and fellow archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) from the clutches of the very dedicated to the Nazi cause Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, his best villain turn since Casino Royale), the film leaps to 1969.
There, Dial of Destiny makes excellent use of the “very unhappy to be here” disposition Ford brought to several movies starting in the late 90s and stretching into the mid-2010s. His Indy is too disconnected to get his students to care about what he’s teaching. Hell, he’s too disconnected to give much of a damn about the end of his marriage to Marion (Karen Allen, on set for a day).
That is until his goddaughter, Shaw’s daughter, Helena, aka Wombat (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), shows up. Her father now dead after years of apparently losing his sanity, and she wants to honor him by completing the Antikythera, the Dial of Destiny of the title. Ford seems to come to life with her arrival and Indy with him.
Their bickering chemistry gives the tale a charge that Crystal Skull only touched when it let Cate Blanchett go full dominatrix. Waller-Bridge’s gift for turning a phrase and her loose-limbed energy nicely compliments and pushes back at Ford, imbuing Indy with a curmudgeonly refusal to admit this is all a bit of fun. That the script never lets their growing bond become too sweet, keeping it peppery to the end, is one of the film’s biggest joys.
The Greatest Hits
What worked less well was Dial of Destiny’s inability to resist the reunion tour. While there’s nothing as egregious here as forcing Michael Keaton to say, “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”there are still about a callback or three too many.
For instance, sure, it’s great to see the problematic through a modern lens, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) again, but the story almost certainly could’ve worked without him. On the more welcome side, the delightful throwback of a dotted line on a map to symbolize globetrotting proves a treat. On the less welcome, a lame reversal of a beautiful bit of improv for Raiders and yet another snakes setpiece.
None of it is terrible, but most of it isn’t especially good. They also tend to be the moments you can feel Dial creak from all the history bearing down on its bones. Yes, everyone loves Indy of the past, but we’re here for a good time with this Indy, not to be reminded of what he used to do.
Getting the Genre Right
To call back to Crystal Skull for a moment, most will likely recall the aliens at the end. It was an interesting idea. 40s serials inspired the Jones films, so taking him into the 50s style sci-fi where that film was set had a certain appeal. Unfortunately, the execution left something to be desired. Even among those who argue for the fourth film’s quality, the part where the aliens show up rarely plays into that defense. Thus, you’d think that would’ve left these filmmakers hesitant to mix science fiction with the more mystically minded series once again.
Instead, they find a more elegant solution. The Antikythera has a sci-fi bend—it tracks thin spots in time-space—but it behaves like the supernaturally minded Ark of the Covenant or Holy Grail. Thus, it satisfies the desire to expand the palette of Indy’s adventures without straying too far afield. It doesn’t necessarily reflect Dial’s era like Crystal Skull sought to, but sometimes telling a good story should trump a more formalistic ambition.
Saying Goodbye to a Hero
It seems strange to say that the one Indiana Jones film not directed by Steven Spielberg isn’t the worst or even the second to worst, but there it is.
This isn’t the best-looking Indiana Jones film; it lacks the filmic pop of the first and third, for instance. Even the visually arresting but not very good Temple of Doom largely outdoes it. Nonetheless, it has its moments—the opening train car rescue, a horse chase through New York—and does far better integrating CGI than its immediate predecessor. Mangold can’t outdirect Spielberg. That said, he can shoot a smart, clean film, and that’s what he does.
As befitting an aging icon, Dial does best when it slows down. The interplay between Ford, giving heroic and cranky in equal measure, and the game Waller-Bridge lights up the film in a way that punching yet another villain doesn’t seem to. All and all, it gives the whip-cracking hero a solid exit after five movies and 42 years of punching bad guys and securing artifacts.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny punches Nazis in theatres everywhere beginning June 30.
Rating: 7/10 SPECS
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