Of all the ways to open one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, no one in their right minds could have predicted a Busby Berkeley-style musical number. And yet there it is: blonde dancers in sequined tuxedoes, inexplicably sashaying us back into the swashbuckling world of cinema’s most famous soldier of fortune. In and of itself, it’s quite brilliant – and reminds us 30 years on that a full-bore musical may be the only thing still lacking on director Steven Spielberg’s resume – but seriously, what the hell is it doing here? And apparently, the filmmakers decided that it wasn’t out there enough, so they added a final touch: leading lady Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) belting out an energized rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” In Mandarin. All this arrives before the opening credits have finished, and as our hero enters the scene dressed to the nines, we’re left with one inescapable conclusion:
This movie is batshit insane.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom endured a surprising amount of scorn from critics of the day, who felt that the franchise went completely around the bend after the iconic thrills of Raiders. But what it lacks in traditional qualities, it makes up for in sheer lunatic intensity. There’s no point in evaluating it by the standards we apply to other films, even other Indiana Jones films. Its flaws cannot be denied, but with material this loopy, they actually become selling points.
And if we’re totally honest, the film’s slapdash structure actually come closer to the Republic serials that inspired the whole franchise than any of the other Indiana Jones films. It plays out like a series of ten-minute vignettes rather than an organized whole: some bits brilliant, some forgettable, but all of them involving the sort of old school death-defying cliffhangers than Indy’s creators hoped so dearly to reinvent. (The unpleasant racial stereotypes are sadly in keeping with those earlier films too: mustachioed Chinese gangsters and sinister Hindu fanatics with seriously nasty dining habits.)
In the middle of it all sits Indy (the one and only Harrison Ford), still in way over his head and still scrambling for that rapidly shrinking escape route. After a breathless shoot-em-up in a Shanghai nightclub, he and his companions bail out over India, where they must rescue an army of kidnapped children from the clutches of an evil cult. Apparently unwilling to double-dip with the Nazis, George Lucas hit upon the notion of using the Thuggee, an ancient Hindu sect that specialized in strangling travelers before the British put the kibbutz on them in the 19thCentury. (The word “thug” actually derives from their name.) They’re re-envisioned here as semi-satanic doomsday types, harnessing the power of sacred stones in an effort to take over the world.
The power of the stones is left deliberately vague, as are the precise tenets of the Thuggee. All the better to take them in completely over-the-top directions.The Temple of Doom struggles the hardest when it waves its hands over details like that. The screenplay (by William Huyck and Gloria Katz, who went on to help Lucas’s disastrous Howard the Duck) sometimes coasts on our goodwill rather than really going for broke, and while none of it is dull, patches of it feel lazy and even distasteful at times. Spielberg is normally brilliant with emotional tone, but here he missteps more often than he should: hampered by the structure which constantly shifts gears. Dividing the film into cliffhanger-style mini episodes means that it can’t ever find its proper footing, and if you’re not prepared to move when it does, it can all get pretty bewildering.
Yet at the same time, those jumps serve as a kind of reset button. If you don’t like what you just saw, stick around for a bit and something better will come along. The film is surprisingly funny at points, anchored by Ford’s woefully untapped potential as a straight man and peppered throughout sequences desperately need a little boost. Similarly, the scary points really become the stuff of nightmare, veering into the inappropriately nasty from time to time, but never less than mesmerizing. The film’s sampler platter nature gets exasperating, but never let it be said that Spielberg can’t handle a money shot: from the signature mine car chase to a set of opening and closing sequences as good as anything he’s ever filmed.
More importantly, the dangers reflect the unique temperament of the main character, something that less artful blockbusters often miss. Who else but Henry Jones Jr. would find himself trapped on a rope bridge with enemies on either side… only to resolutely hack through the ropes as a way of evening the odds? Ford becomes the rock to which we can cling amid all the chaos, his charming rogue routine never more welcome (or needed) and confirming Indy’s status as the role he was born to play. Anytime The Temple of Doom threatens to go off the rails, he’s right there by our side, reminding us to relax and have a little fun with it. That makes the set pieces joyful romps rather than tedious dirges, and though time has diminished some of the thrills on display, the rest of them age like fine wine.
His companions are much more of a mixed bag. Capshaw benefited from her director’s kind attentions (they’ve been happily married since 1991), but her shrill performance provokes more irritation than amusement, and her nominal chemistry with Ford feels far too forced far too often. (Kathleen Turner mopped up the floor with the same basic routine a few months earlier in Romancing the Stone.) Ke Huy Quan does a little better as Indy’s pint-sized sidekick Short Round, but it’s a near thing sometimes. The joys he conveyed to our 12-yer-old selves become quite wearisome as adults, hampered by some appalling examples of Engrish at its worst. He responds with some heartfelt charm and at least one act of pure heroics (his uncanny resemblance to Jackie Chan doesn’t hurt), but like the rest of the film, Shorty remains a decidedly mixed bag.
And if we’re going to be totally honest, all non-Ford portions of the film belong to the heavy. Amrish Puri dominates the screen as Mola Ram, the cheerfully fiendish Thuggee leader who exemplifies the film’s dark and hellish core. What could have been a one-note fanatic becomes a fulcrum for the actor’s irresistible force of personality (which he parlayed into a long career on the Bollywood scene). Mola Ram never explains his villainy and thanks to Puri’s infernal magnetism, he never needs to: when it comes to pure evil on a stick, this guy is hard to top. “Oh, you have a doomsday device? That’s adorable. I’ve kidnapped an army of children to toil ceaselessly in my underground mines while I drive throngs of fanatic worshippers into epileptic fits by yanking the beating heart out of the nearest sacrificial victim and cackling maniacally as it bursts into flames. Oh yeah, and I just turned the greatest hero in motion picture history into my zombified slave. Tell Dr. No he can kiss it.”
All of that leaves The Temple of Doom as exactly, precisely what it was intended to be: one unforgettable ride. The Last Crusade achieved more respectability by aping the Raiders formula more closely, and I maintain that Crystal Skull holds more strengths than its detractors will admit. But after Raiders itself, none of them felt as original as this one: taking a hard left on the jungle path and entering the realm of pure Hollywood lunacy. You could never make a blockbuster this brazenly nuts these days, and that grants the film a lingering power that none of Indy’s other adventures can quite duplicate. Criticize it if you must, God knows it deserves it at points. Just don’t deny how hard it is to forget... or how remarkably infectious our hero’s crooked grin remains.
Need more Indy? Check out Mania's: Indiana Jones Goes to Hell: 30 Years of Defending Temple of Doom.