There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about whether or not INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL will be any good. I don’t have any idea at this point. I know that I’ve lowered my expectations quite a bit. I’ll see it, for certain, and it’ll be a mix of nostalgia and good will over both Harrison Ford and the character he plays. I’ll hope for the best, and prepare for mediocrity. That seems unusually harsh, coming from me. But you can’t mess with perfection.
I’m not the only one to say this, but RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a perfect movie. It does exactly what it’s supposed to. It is completely aware of itself, and there’s very little ambiguity about the film. It is a perpetual entertainment machine, and it’s only improved with age. It’s relentless in its desire to entertain you. It’s got punchy, kickass dialogue, great action moments, and characters you care about. There’s something to be said about making a movie that feels so effortless. Not many filmmakers can pull it off. So why am I writing about TEMPLE OF DOOM instead?
It’s a fascinating film to me. At times, it’s brutal, to the audience and to its characters. It gets unapologetically silly. There’s definitely tones of racism and sexism in it. The mid-section is about as bleak as Spielberg has ever gotten. And yet, I prefer it to the mostly bloated LAST CRUSADE, because unlike that film, TEMPLE OF DOOM doesn’t pull any punches. There’s a real sense of darkness and danger to the film that, at some points, not even RAIDERS equals. And in a strange way, you can see the Lucasisms that show up later in the Prequels, but here they work.
Some people claim that Short Round is some sort of pre-Jar Jar, but I disagree. For one thing, Short Round’s a terrific character. He’s funny, he can take care of himself, and he brings out an aspect of Indy that we haven’t seen before – a paternal instinct that makes him somehow more endearing. Harrison and Ke Huy Quan have a great chemistry together in the scenes they share. If anything, Willie (Kate Capshaw) is more of an annoying presence, but her character comes from a long line of archetypes from screwball comedies, and she makes up for it with the sexual banter she has with Indy at Pangkot Palace.
Is the movie racist? I’d say so. It certainly treats the Indian culture with more than a little disdain, and I’d like to think it was Spielberg’s subconscious way of getting back at GANDHI for winning Best Picture over E.T. in 1982. It’s a little sexist too, but it’s a pulp movie, and they’re all a little bit sexist. But in the context of the movie, it all works. Mola Ram is probably the most over-the-top villain in Spielberg’s catalog. I love the foreboding over-the-shoulder shot of Ram as he walks up to the sacrificial cage, much like the fin in JAWS.
As for Harrison Ford? He’s completely, totally Indy in this movie, even more to me than in LAST CRUSADE. The camera gets every iconic pose and silhouette of the character. You don’t even need to see his face. The way Ford responds to Willie’s pleas to leave the Temple – “Yes, all of us” – is about as heroic a delivery as Ford’s ever given. Certainly more so than “Get off my plane!” He’s witty, charming, and he kicks ass. That’s the Indy I remember, not the guy fumbling through a stupid accent as he tries to rescue his dad from some bumbling Germans.
No, the story’s not perfect, but its imperfections make it more interesting. I like that the film just drops into its story without a lot of exposition. I have no idea whether or not the Sankara Stones are actual Hindu myth, and I don’t care. I think the reason some people don’t like TEMPLE OF DOOM as much as the other films is because it doesn’t come from a Christian perspective. Sure, we can believe in the Ark or the Holy Grail, those are from God. But this is an alien culture to most of America and that’s why I think this film’s more difficult for them to embrace.
There are some things that TEMPLE OF DOOM can be blamed for, and the biggest one is that this is the film that caused Steven Spielberg for the next several years to pull his punches. The audience reaction to DOOM surprised and upset him, I imagine. Children were put in real danger, and there’s a violence to the film that would make parents uncomfortable. It’s the film that was the biggest influence in creating the PG-13 rating, and we’re still struggling with that nebulous system today. When is too much too much? Thing is, the over-the-top nature of the violence works. It’s scary, pulpy, and fun. When Indy goes bad in the middle of the film, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s that good kind of uncomfortable where you have no idea where the movie is going to go next. Even watching it now, it’s a really unnerving part of the film and it reminds me in a way of Scorsese, how he makes the audience squirm a bit in TAXI DRIVER, but in a way this is more disturbing because he’s subverting the whole hero iconography. It’s a dangerous moment in the film, and it’s a shame that audiences couldn’t get past that and enjoy the ride.
The last 40 minutes of TEMPLE OF DOOM are about as over-the-top as Spielberg’s ever gotten. He throws everything at the end, and it’s as if those Saturday morning serials suddenly were dipped in cocaine. When watching or reading interviews with Spielberg about it, he seems regretful that the film turned out the way it did, even though he met his wife on the film. He shouldn’t feel that way. The movie still holds up today as an intense film experience, and it’s more true to the pulp roots of the series than LAST CRUSADE is. I get the feeling that Robert E. Howard would have loved the shit out of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. It’s pure entertainment.