A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM jjjj

20th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1984, originally PG / re-rated PG-13, 118 mins.

 

Harrison Ford: Indiana Jones / Kate Capshaw: Willie Scott / Ke Huy Quan: Short Round / Amrish Puri: Mola Ram

 

Directed by Steven Spielberg / Story by George Lucas /

Screenplay by Willard and Huyck and Gloria Katz

Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom Poster

History has been very kind to the wonderfully titled INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  If it were not for the existence of its prequel, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Steven Spielberg’s 1984 film would easily be the best action film of the eighties.  TEMPLE OF DOOM was, and still is, one of the most exciting, relentless, and maniacally imaginative escapist films ever to grace the silver screen. 

Like the THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, TEMPLE OF DOOM succeeds where many sequels before and since it have failed.  It’s a completely satisfying sequel while being a refreshingly fun stand-alone film.  You really don’t need to see RAIDERS to fully enjoy the visual extravaganza that is TEMPLE OF DOOM. 

At its core, writer/creator George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg provided audiences with the same sort of goofy and whimsical action and excitement that they experienced from the old Saturday afternoon movie serials that inspired the film.  Spielberg himself has stated that these films were made as "B-movies" that are not seen as "anything more than a better made version of the Republic serials."  Maybe that’s the key to the success of TEMPLE OF DOOM and the rest of the film series: their charm lies in the fact that they feel fresh, vibrant, and new while seeming vaguely familiar at the same time.  Moreover, TEMPLE OF DOOM is just as fun as movies get, and it made INDIANA JONES an indelible part of our pop culture mythology.

TEMPLE OF DOOM opens surprisingly in a Shanghai nightclub with a wonderful song and dance number of “Anything Goes”, performed primarily in Mandarin.  It’s a wonderfully effective scene, reflecting not only the film’s self-referential sense of style, mood, and whimsicality, but it also serves to reflect the type of nostalgic tone that the INDIANA JONES films are striving for.  They are not “modern” films, in a way, but more like classic throwbacks and homages to the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  The dance number serves as insightful reminder of the sort of care free, nonchalant, and innocent tone that the classic musicals of the fifties had.  Of course, it’s also great because its such an effective foil to the opening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  That film started off dark and tense, whereas TEMPLE OF DOOM begins light, without really giving away the darker overtones of the rest of the film. 

The terrific dance number serves to set up the opening action scene, which are sort of staples in the classic James Bond films, which subsequently lead into the main story.  Indiana Jones strides into the bright nightclub in one of those classic move walk-ins, looking debonair, cool, restrained, and dressed in a white tuxedo that bares a not-too-unfamiliar resemblance to Bogart from CASABLANCA.  Again, Lucas and Spielberg do this purposely, to provide small and subtle visual echoes to the classics of the past.  Of course, Indy feels that he has fulfilled a simple mission to find the remains of an ancient Emperor for the men that hired him, but they deceptively poison the oblivious Indy in an effort to ensure that he will not walk away with the money.  There is an antidote, of course, but when all hell breaks loose and Indy fights his attackers off, it's made all the more tense by the fact that he’s in a drug-induced haze.  It’s a terrifically crafted scene, blended with the right balance of action, absurd dark comedy, and the indispensable charm of Ford.  Indy does get the antidote and a girl, a nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw, the future Mrs. Spielberg) and escapes the Club Obi-Wan (another sly reference and in-joke) with the help of his nine-year-old Chauffer – Short Round (Ke Huy Quan).

The opening  scene in the nightclub might have been the climax of most action films, but it's only the small and modest beginning of the rest of TEMPLE OF DOOM, which hurdles by with a breakneck pace to scene after scene of cliffhanger thrills.  If the thought of nearly being poisoned was not bad enough, Indy and his new companions find them stuck on a cargo plane in which the pilots have conveniently abandoned them mid-flight.  This, of course, does not seem altogether surprising to  Indy, who perceives this problem like just another day in the office.  When Willie pleads with Indy and asks him if he knows how to fly, Indy replies in a tone of ill-timed honesty and sly, sardonic wit, “Naw, do you?” 

Needless to say, they do escape, in a rather unorthodox fashion, which leads them to another relentless action scene that sees them on a river raft dodging obstacles and, again, nearly meeting their deaths.  This, again, perfectly reflects the tone the film is trying to achieve…the first ten minutes of the film has more cliffhanger serial moments than most 14 chapter 1940 serials have.  Yes, it’s a draining first few minutes, but you nevertheless laugh along with it willfully and smile all the way through it.  Dear God, what possibly could happen to these people next?

Indy and his companions do find a quiet moment when their raft is discovered by an Indian villager who takes them back for refuge.  Upon the arrival in the village Indy discovers that a stone of magical properties (there are no other kind in these films) has disappeared.  Its here where the film takes a decidedly darker tone when it’s discovered that the village’s children were also taken.  Indy, being the daring and dashing rogue, decides to investigate, but being the agnostic action hero that he is, does not fully believe in the magic or power of the village rock. 

So why does he go? 

“Fortune and glory,” he tells his questioning sidekick.

Indy, with his companions and guides, travels  from the village and  move through countryside of India where they eventually make their way to the palace Maharajah of India.  They, of course, are invited to a dinner whose dishes would have to go down in the history of cinema as one of the most absurd and outlandish ever seen.  The scene, of course, serves largely an expository purpose to provide background and information, but its also another one of the classically composed Bondian moments where the hero has polite dinner talk with the antagonists of the film that will most likely try to kill him later.  This scene goes further than most similar Bond scenes; I don’t especially remember Bond being served chilled monkey brains or eyeball soup.   Indiana, at least, remains a civil and respectful dinner guest. 

This scene, of course, is just the calm before the storm, as Indy and his friends later discover secret catacombs beneath the palace which contains the infamous Thugi Cult that worships Hindu Gods; you know, the kind that offer up ritualistic sacrifices of human bodies and hearts.  All of this is orchestrated by Mola Ram (the wonderfully despicable Amrish Puri), an evil Indian holy man that not only stole the magic stones from the village, but also stole the village’s children and now uses them as slave labour.  Indy sure hated Nazis in the first film, but he sure as hell hates Mola Ram, and the films advances at a ridiculous  speed to their final, inevitable showdown.  It is during this final third of the film that its most elaborate and breath-taking set pieces appear.

TEMPLE OF DOOM is one of the most tense and unbearably exciting films of the eighties primarily because its succeeds at moving from one climatic and virtuoso action set piece to another, and each one tops the previous.  The film’s pacing is remarkable.  Its true goal is to entertain and excite, and Spielberg never releases the audience from his vice-like grip.  Clichés aside, the film is an endless roller coaster ride of thrills, chills, and energy, and Spielberg and company have such glee in trying to top themselves with every scene. 

The film has broad scope that would dwarf most James Bond pictures (it travels from Shanghai nightclubs to Indian palaces to deep caverns and catacombs to secret underground liars that home religious zealots that tear people’s hearts out of their chests - while alive).  The film has the essential and classical hero motifs - the egotistical and megalomaniac that wants to rule the world and convert all around him to his cause and the square jawed and earnest hero that will do anything he can to stop him.  Indy just may be the most brave and suicidally determined characters in the history of action films.  Let’s just say that through part of the film he’s been poisoned, beaten up, drugged, choked, shackled in chains, forced to drink blood, induced into a Mola Ram mind screw, nearly throw into a pit of lava, drowned, and that’s only the first two thirds of the film.  Indy just keeps coming back for more, and its his relentless pursuits for all things good  where much of the humor of the film arrives.

There are just too many scenes to mention that provide awestruck self-reflection.  The opening scene was a delight, as was the dinner scene.  But when Indy enters those catacombs, the film spirals into a seedy, dark, and violent spectacle of some of the best set design, art direction, special effects and sound effects this die of a Star Wars film.  Mola Ram’s dark lair is one of the all-time triumphs of set design and every frame looks like a glorious cover to the old pulp fiction books and comics.  The film not being nominated for an Oscar in this category was one of the biggest shames of the Academy Awards. 

However, the film did win an Oscar for its dazzling and exhilarating visual effects, and the geniuses at Lucas’ ILM outdid themselves with this one.  Scenes where human victims are lowered into lava pits in cages are expertly handled, but the film’s coup de grace is a scene where Indy and friends are pursued in mine cars by Mola Ram's goons.  The scene is a masterpiece of editing, sights and sounds, and it seamlessly marries together visual effects into the live action.  I beg anyone to find a scene in any other movie that’s a more exciting, tense, and a brilliant example of technology and movie magic done tactfully than this one.  Modern action films go into visual effects overkill, but TEMPLE OF DOOM got it perfectly right, and it sure helps when the scene ends with the biggest laugh of the film as a sort of a silent moment of rest for the audience that, no doubt, where drained by this time.

Harrison Ford owns this film.  Sure, the surrounding cast is filled with colorful and spunky characters.  Ke Huy Quan provides a lot of light comedy with Short Round, and Kate Capshaw is sassy and sexy as the classic blond bombshell that forever nags the hero while always managing to require rescuing.  But Ford is the film’s pulse, and he’s never been more charismatic than he was here.  Indiana Jones, like the film universe he populates, is a throwback character to classic heroes of the past, but with a modern age edge and power.  He’s like a healthy blend of the cold focus and low-key charm of Gary Cooper, the refined and understated appeal of Humphrey Bogart, the whimsical humor and courage of Errol Flynn, and the guts and grit of John Wayne.  That’s why Ford’s character has such a timelessness: he’s buried in old fashioned traditions and carved and sculpted from them in fresh ways. 

The film was marred with controversy when it was released in the summer of 1984.  Spielberg and company were unable to get permission to shoot in India. The Indian government requested that a copy of the script to be read and also demanded that the word "Maharajah"  be removed,  fearing that the content does not reflect their culture.  Sources close to the production felt that Indian officials found the script overwhelmingly racist and ethnocentric (strange, when you consider that one of the heroes is Japanese and that the Indian villagers are noble and peaceful people).  Nevertheless, the production moved to Sri Lanka where some of locations were also used for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. 

The film also caused an MPAA uproar.  TEMPLE OF DOOM was a noteworthy and influential film in introducing the most notable change in the MPAA ratings in nearly 20 years.  Realizing that he and Lucas were making a decidedly darker film in terms of intensity, violence, and action, Spielberg appealed to the MPAA and requested a workable rating between the PG for general audiences and the R for adult audiences. The result was the birth of the PG-13, which is still used today, albeit it as an oftentimes annoying and befuddling substitution for the R for many films that hope to achieve financial success over artistic kudos.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is a film that holds up amazingly after twenty years.  It really has not aged a day (it could have been released last year, for all I know).  It’s a film that makes no apologies for what it is.  It may not be Spielberg’s favourite film in the series (he later dismissed the film as being too dark and violent for its own good, and later recounted that the only good thing that emerged from it was meeting Kate Capshaw, who would later become his wife), but it remains a classic action film of the eighties.  Goofy and light-hearted, yet action-packed and cheerfully energetic at its heart, its one fantastic movie-going experience, and one of the best sequels of all time.  It  was also cemented in by its great success by Harrison Ford.  STAR WARS introduced us to Harrison Ford as a leading man.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK established Ford as a silver screen hero.  INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, most assuredly, solidified Ford as an action hero icon.

 

CrAiGeR's other reviews of

 

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL  jj1/2

 

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK  jjjj

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the INDY JONES QUADRILOGY:

1. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) jjjj

2. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) jjjj

3. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) jjj1/2

4. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL  (2008)   jj1/2

 

 

 

 

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