INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY
2023, PG-13, 154 mins.
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones / Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Helena Shaw / Antonio Banderas as Renaldo / John Rhys-Davies as Sallah / Toby Jones as Basil Shaw / Boyd Holbrook as Klaber / Ethann Isidore as Teddy Kumar / Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Jürgen Voller / Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood / Thomas Kretschmann as Colonel WeberDirected by James Mangold / Written by Mangold, David Koepp, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth
"A few times in my life, I've seen things," says the raspy-voiced and nearly 80-years-old Indiana Jones at one key and humorous point in INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY.
"I drank the blood of Kali...I've been tortured with voodoo...I've been shot nine times!" He boasts this to his partner while scaling a very steep rock wall in search of a specific piece of antiquity at a time in his life when he should be in a retirement home.
I would also add that he drank from the cup that Jesus Christ used during the Last Supper and even had a close encounter with interdimensional beings...but who's counting? This guy has been through the ringer...and then some.
Indiana Jones has gone down as one of the greatest action heroes and characters of the 20th Century and one that helped cement star Harrison Ford as a cinematic icon. There's an undoubted nostalgic rush to see the actor - now a senior citizen, but still looking astoundingly good for his age - return to the fedora and whip for one last archaeological adventure. I had similar feelings wash over me during the last sequel, 2008's INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, and I thought then - as I do now - that Ford has matured in such a timeless and graceful manner. The years and the mileage are obviously showing their effects, yes, but the cocky rogue with the mischievous half smile still remains. The actor has recently stated "I'm Indiana Jones. When I'm gone, he's gone." No question. Even thinking of another actor taking on this mantel leaves an instant bad taste in my mouth.
One of the big issues, though, with this fifth Indy film - the first under a Disney-owned banner and most notably the first without director Steven Spielberg and writer/creator/producer George Lucas at the helm (they've been delegated to honorary Executive Producer status here) - is that even Ford's sizeable good will on screen and a compelling MacGuffin relic that everyone seeks out can't make up for a film that seems to be paradoxically looking backwards when it wishes to move forward. THE DIAL OF DESTINY's story is made in the quintessential Indy mode - there's an artifact that both he and nefarious Nazis (he still hates these guys) want and a mutual race against time to locate and nab it - and it has the key obligatory elements that most fans yearn for in these films. Having said that, this was an endlessly frustrating watch for me in the sense that it contained some legitimately solid moments while simultaneously making so many categorically wrong-headed choices that I grew dizzy just contemplating them during my screening. And perhaps THE DIAL OF DESTINY's largest sin is that it's too long, bloated, and lacking in genuine thrills and excitement in its set pieces.
The opening sequence is unquestionably the best in the film, but it's also a reflection of what works and what doesn't here. We're whisked away to the mid-1940s and back to World War II, during which time Nazi Germany is on the verge of falling. A young Indy (more on this very soon) has been captured by the Nazis while working with his partner, Basil (Toby Jones), trying to thwart Hitler's attempts to locate a priceless Christian relic, the Lance of Longinus (the dagger that punctured Christ during the crucifixion). There's a Nazi astrophysicist named Jurgen Voller (a well cast Mads Mikkelsen) that secretly has his eyes set on The Antikythera, or Archimedes' Dial (of destiny), which is theorized to be capable of predicting astronomical positions and reveal fissures in time. Indy escapes capture and a hanging and secures his comrade in Basil and narrowly escapes the German speeding train alive. If this were done during the glory days of Indy adventures, then it might be heralded as a classic introduction; it's a most juicy setup, indeed. But director James Mangold (pinch hitting for the absent Spielberg) shoots things with such murky and muddy cinematography that it's often hard to determine what's happening on screen. That, and there's a distractingly heavy reliance of CG fakery here, from the speeding Nazi locomotive to, yes, Ford's own face being digitally de-aged. There are moments when the overall effect is shockingly convincing, but more times than not Indy doesn't entirely look or sound right; it kind of derailed my whole buy-in to what should have been a sensational opener. Considering the low-fi and down and gritty aesthetic of the early INDY films, THE DIAL OF DESTINY gets off to a creatively antithetical start.
We then flashforward to 1969 when we're re-introduced to a much, much older Indy, who's a far cry away from the Nazi punching fortune and glory-seeking archaeologist of old. He's mysteriously single now, living in a semi-ratty New York apartment, a heavy boozer, and has essentially become one of those grumpy old codgers that runs to his neighbors to complain when they have their music blaring too much (this literally happens in the film). Indy is on the verge of retirement on the same day that the Apollo 11 astronauts are set to appear in a lavish parade on the NY streets to celebrate their moon landing. He has a chance meeting with Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who reveals to him that she is his long estranged goddaughter that took up after her father Basil's obsession with locating the missing half of Archimedes Dial that was long since thought lost forever back in 1944 during Indy's battle with Voller and his Nazi squad. Voller also makes a re-appearance, who went from being a Nazi to a NASA scientist aiding the space program and still has his sights set on finding the dial. Armed with his trigger happy henchman, Klaber (Boyd Hollbrook, who previously worked with Mangold on LOGAN), Voller stops at nothing to get the dial and use it for some seriously nefarious historical change, leading to Indy forming an impromptu alliance with Helena to beat them to the task.
Ford has never played this character so old. That sounds like a beyond-obvious statement. Not many actors can claim to have played such a legendary persona over the course of four decades (no actor to portray James Bond can even boast that). Despite his highly advancing years and the fact that he physically can't commit to the type of action set-pieces that his far younger self could decades earlier, there's no denying that Ford still maintains a charismatic enthusiasm for arguably his greatest role that hasn't dampened with time. This is most assuredly an Indy beaten down by life and with multiple levels of melancholy ravaging through him, but Ford remains pleasingly up to the challenge here and gives a fine performance (he's so good here that he reminds viewers instantly as to why a digital doppelganger of him that we saw in the opening can never replace a soulful flesh and blood actor).
He's also well matched by Waller-Bridge's duplicitous-minded archaeologist who has less than noble-minded motives with the relics that she finds. The actress plays well off of Ford throughout and the two have a nice unforced chemistry during the course of the story. Most of the Indy films have given him a love interest (in one form or another), so it's a nice change of pace here to see Helena serve on more of a near equal footing as a partner. We do get some cameos from a few Indy characters of old, like John Rhys-Davis' Sallah (who hasn't been seen since 1989's INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE), and although it's a welcoming thing to see him once again share time with his long-time friend, his character here is dreadfully underutilized and essentially serves as a taxi cab driver that takes Indy to the airport...and not much else. Indy's wife in Marion (who he married at the end of CRYSTAL SKULL) is largely absent for 99 per cent of this film, which is a shame. And their son Mutt is a total no-show. His absence is explained in a line of dialogue that aims at tugging on heart-strings, but instead comes off as a clunky afterthought.
Faring better is Mikkelsen as his ruthlessly determined ex-Nazi scientist that seems cut from the classic Indy villain mold. There's an undercurrent to his mad scheme to use the dial (no spoilers) to re-introduce the Nazis back into power and correct the mistakes of Hitler, which is as scary of a bad guy motivation as they come in these films. This leads to multiple run-ins with Indy, including a well-oiled and executed race through the parade littered streets of New York, during which time Indy is fleeing from Voller's hired guns on horseback (he does share a brief moment locking eyes with a confused Neil Armstrong and company). James Mangold is a seriously good director when given great projects (see the aforementioned LOGAN and FORD VS FERRARI), but in THE DIAL OF DESTINY he and his team never once seem to harness the film's other action set pieces with the sinewy grace, simplicity, and editorial flow of what Spielberg (sorely missed here) provided in the past. Look at a mid-section car chase through the streets of Tangier as a prime example, which goes on too long and becomes a flurry of visual incoherence or a later would-be chilling montage set underwater (a first for the series) showing Indy looking for dial clues in a sunken shipwreck while dealing with man hungry eels (basically snakes, in his mind). It should have been unnerving, but it's so dimly shot that it becomes an indecipherable blur.
Here's the other thing: The Indy films were born from an idea by George Lucas to pay loving homage to the 1930s adventure serials that thrilled him and Spielberg as children. Part of the pleasure of the first three films (and to a degree the fourth) is watching this character get bruised, battered, and beaten to a pulp while surviving one cliffhanger pressure cooker of a situation after another. Because of Ford's age, that simply can't happen in THE DIAL OF DESTINY, which means that the element of suspense and danger is criminally absent. There's rarely a moment in the film when you genuinely feel concerned for the plight of the character. It's hard not to devolve into ageism when thinking about Ford's participation in this sequel, and I commend his steadfast commitment to the role (he's still in remarkably good shape for 80). There remains a cringe worthy element of sadness in watching him trying to reclaim his youthful glory days and he simply can't engage with this action material in the same ways as before. Watching Ford is a pleasure, to be sure, but his age doesn't afford him much of an opportunity to do what he could with the character beforehand. That leaves THE DIAL OF DESTINY frequently feeling void of thrills and makes its already too long 155 minutes a watch-checking fortitude test. It's equally sad to hear the chords of John Williams' (returning again) score sound more heavily made up of greatest hits themes than ever before; there's very little in the way of adding new and memorable motifs to the proceedings. I love Williams to death, but this is as phoned-in of a score as he's done (which respectfully may have something to do with him being 90).
I'll give THE DIAL OF DESTINY props for swinging ludicrously big in the final sections (fans will either simply go with or will be shaking their heads in incredulous disbelief). Considering the fantastical nature of what the character has gone through in previous adventures, what transpires for him in the final act of THE DIAL OF DESTINY may not feel like that large of a storytelling stretch. I think that this film's climax simply had me asking far too many logical questions for its own good, not to mention that it makes an abrupt transition that all but ignores a recurring subplot about Indy's inability to return to his home city...which begs the question as to why this subplot was introduced in the first place. That's sloppy writing, which came from not one, not two, not three, but four screenwriters, including Mangold himself. When the final credits rolled I was left with the nagging sensation that THE DIAL OF DESTINY is one big shrug of an Indy adventure, and one that's - in the large scheme of things - inconsequential and largely unnecessary. For as many problems as I had with CRYSTAL SKULL, that sequel felt more entrenched in its franchise DNA than this one. A lot of THE DIAL OF DESTINY is joyless and cynical-minded - a pathetic cash grab ploy by Disney to exploit a newly acquired IP. It goes through the motions in trying to appropriate the Spielberg/Lucas glory days of yesteryear, but ends up coming off as a pale and undisciplined copycat.
It pains me to say this, but the heyday of this series and character have long come and come; they belong in a cinematic museum to be admired and appreciated in the future. What this franchise doesn't require is to be needlessly extended well past its expiration date. One of the unintentional casualties of INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY is making viewers ponder what could have been if more Indy sequels were produced in the 90s and while the creative forces behind it were still at their peak. Disney can try to turn back time as aggressively as they want, but attempting to re-capture Indy's formative glory years - especially now - is a fool's errand.
I think Archimedes would have agreed.