|Director: James Mangold
|Screenplay: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and David Koepp and James Mangold (based on characters created by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman)
|Stars: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Helena), Mads Mikkelsen (Dr. Voller), Ethann Isidore (Teddy), Toby Jones (Basil Shaw), Antonio Banderas (Renaldo), Karen Allen (Marion), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Shaunette Renée Wilson (Mason), Thomas Kretschmann (Colonel Weber), Boyd Holbrook (Klaber), Olivier Richters (Hauke)
|MPAA Rating: PG-13
|Year of Release: 2023
The opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny does not bode well for the fifth film in the long-running—and potentially exhausted—franchise. Although its use of glaring Nazi villains and an extended chase in and around a moving train is clearly meant to evoke good memories of the earlier Indiana Jones films, particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), it feels like nothing more than a generic Marvel movie, with its extensive digital effects (including a moderately effective de-aging of star Harrison Ford, who is now pushing 80), hectic editing, and vaguely cartoonish vibe. It is telling how far the series has moved from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s original conception of a modern updating of the old movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s that it feels more like a graphic novel adaptation.
Thankfully, the opening sequence does not define the film as a whole, which has the added pressure of being the first in the series not to be directed by Steven Spielberg and to have no script input from producer George Lucas. And, while their lack of presence is felt, Dial of Destiny still turns out to be a largely enjoyable, surprisingly moving adventure tale. It does fall into some of the same pitfalls that sank Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which came out a decade and a half ago, namely the aforementioned overreliance on digital effects, but Dial of Destiny has enough throwback charm, humor, and attention to character that it comes close to earning its spot in a franchise that frankly should have ended with Indy riding off into the sunset in Last Crusade.
Alas, time marches on, and when we are reintroduced to Indy after the opening sequence set in 1944, we find him a cantankerous old loner living in a cluttered New York City apartment next door to a bunch of blissed-out hippies. The Indy-as-crotchety-old-geezer schtick doesn’t have much depth, and thankfully the film moves on from it quickly, favoring instead a quick-moving new adventure that finds Indy retiring from his day job in academia where, unlike his younger days, none of his students seem interested in his stories of chasing “fame and glory.” He is not entirely retired from adventure, though, as he is soon partnered with Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the grown daughter of Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), a nebbish British archaeologist who we saw working with Indy in the opening sequence.
The object to which they give chase is a fabled clockwork device designed by Archimedes 2,000 years ago that reportedly has the ability to point to distortions in space-time, thus potentially allowing for time travel. This device is also sought by Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, channeling Ronald Lacey’s Toht from Raiders), a maniacal Nazi mathematician-turned-American intellectual whose crimes against humanity during the Second World War have been forgiven by a pliable American government due to his contributions to landing Americans on the moon (the sharp invective against amoral government bureaucracy, which was so pronounced in Raiders, has quite a bit of traction here, especially in its invocation of the country’s shameful choice to avoid prosecuting Nazi war criminals if they could be repurposed to the state’s benefit).
It is not hard to see why director James Mangold was chosen to pick up the mantle from Spielberg. Mangold has a diverse career that includes intense dramas like Cop Land (1997) and Walk the Line (2005), as well as the horror-thriller Identity (2008) and the gritty-violent Logan (2017), which for my money is one of the best comic book adaptations in years and also deals with a complex, aging antihero. Stepping into Spielberg’s shoes is no small feat, and Mangold generally acquits himself well, especially in the film’s more character-driven scenes, such as the one in which Indy explains what happened to his son and Marion (Karen Allen), who he married at the end of the last film.
Ford and Waller-Bridge develop a snappy, engagingly terse relationship that quickly becomes the film’s greatest asset. Helena, who is Indy’s god-daughter, is an equal to Indy’s formerly ruthless self (once again he has to defend himself from charges of being a “grave robber”—which, let’s face it, he was). She is tough and unapologetic about her determined self-interest, although that rough exterior has to soften some as she and Indy slowly ground their conflict into the a mutual father-daughter affection. For good measure the film throws in Ethann Isidore as Teddy, a Short Round-esque adolescent thief Helena has all but adopted, and Antonio Banderas as Renaldo, a salty deep sea diving expert who takes Indy someplace he has never been in any of the previous films: under the ocean.
Those looking to throw barbs will certainly find targets in Dial of Destiny, but I found it quite enjoyable. There are times it wears its need to evoke the earlier films a little too blatantly on its sleeve, but I can’t fault its earnest affection for the better moments in the series and desire to find a place in the modern movie landscape for a time-worn character like Indiana Jones. Ford proves that he can still mix it up with the best of them, and he allows plenty of the old charm to shine through while still remaining true to the idea that Indy has seen a lot of years and mileage—much more so than he complained about on the ship in Raiders. His age is never ignored, but rather highlighted while still allowing him to pull off some mean feats (although Ford, who still does a lot of his own stuntwork, appears to be struggling from time to time). And, while the big climax involving time travel and bringing Indiana Jones into the past he has spent his entire life studying, is rousing in its own right, it is the quiet denouement that really packs a punch, bringing together characters and suggesting the healing of old wounds.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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