Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Set in 1935, this prequel sees Indiana Jones involved in a deal with a local mobster (Roy Chiao) that goes wrong, seeing Indy have to make an escape, accompanied by nightclub singer Willy (Kate Capshaw), and diminutive driver Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). They board a plane to get out of China and decide to get some shut-eye, but nefarious scheming sees them on a plane with no pilot, crashing somewhere over the Himalayas. Thankfully, the ever-resourceful Indy grabs an inflatable raft, inflates it, throws it out, and hurls the three of them into it, and they end up taking a ride down river. This lands them somewhere in India, and having to contend with a local cult who engage in human sacrifice, having stolen some local children and some sacred artefacts. Meanwhile, Willy does a lot of whining. ‘Coz she’s a woman, y’know. Amrish Puri plays the cult leader, Roshan Seth plays an English-educated Indian dignitary, whilst Ric Young is Chiao’s bodyguard/henchman.
I’ve never understood the appeal of this 1984 prequel from director Steven Spielberg (“Jaws”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Schindler’s List”), and repeated viewings haven’t uncovered any greatness that has eluded me previously. Nope, this is one of the most disappointing and miscalculated entries in a franchise ever made. Take particular note of the fact that the screenplay, although based on a story by George Lucas (“American Graffiti”, “Star Wars”), is not written by Lawrence Kasdan this time. Nope, it’s from the husband and wife team of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Yep, that’s the three people behind the mega flop “Howard the Duck”, who are responsible for the story this time. Says it all, really.
With all that said, Spielberg is a director capable of greatness, or at least great entertainment, and this is anything but entertaining, so he deserves to be lumped in here too. I mean, there’s just some seriously sloppy shit going on here, like scenes that seem to lack a transition to explain how someone got there. All of a sudden, Kate Capshaw is down in the cave. How did she figure that out? Why is Indy all of a sudden fully dressed immediately after he makes his escape? We don’t see, and somewhere between Spielberg and Lucas, those two smart, capable filmmakers should’ve picked up on it. Then again, this is the same Spielberg who was clearly too in love with his leading lady (and eventual Mrs. Spielberg) to notice that Kate Capshaw is one of the least appealing leading ladies in cinematic history. You only need to look at the idiotic Chinese version of ‘Anything Goes’ that she sings (not terribly convincingly) in the ridiculously out of place opening song-and-dance scene. If that was meant to be funny, it’s actually an embarrassment (Yes, I know the number was supposedly Lucas’ idea, but gee, I dunno about that). How bad is the eventual Mrs. Spielberg? Oh let me count the ways! I get the feeling her character is meant to be a repressed Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen”-type, but she takes it to an aggravating and frankly nonsensical degree. This is a woman who speaks the language in China where she has a good job and presumably connections, yet this is the same woman who is just plain horrible and whiny in regards to foreign cultural practices (and anything outdoors-y) during the film’s India-set scenes. It doesn’t compute, and it is instantly and constantly grating. All she does is whine, shriek, yell, and cry. Non. Stop. The absolute nadir is the scene where she tries to cover an elephant in perfume. What an insufferable idiot, who in no way resembles an actual human being on any plane of existence. She’s shallow, stupid and thoroughly unappealing. I think the blame lies at the screenplay, direction, and performance level. No matter whom you level the blame at, however, it can’t be denied that it knocks the entire film out of whack, because Capshaw is one half of the central romantic coupling. I think Mr. Spielberg is the only one who was in any way charmed by her, because she and Harrison Ford share less than zero sparks between them. Speaking of charm, that’s what the film sorely lacks, charm. And the only heart it has is the one that we see getting ripped out of a guy’s chest, that resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating in the US (the severed fingers probably contributed too). Talk about a film with an uneven tone! The opening set-piece is more indicative of the overblown “1941” or John Landis than Indiana Jones. It’s terribly over-indulgent, as is the dinner scene with eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains are served. If that shit was meant to be darkly humorous, Spielberg is freaking tone deaf, not to mention culturally wayyyyyyy insensitive. It definitely doesn’t seem the right fit for an Indiana Jones film, if you ask me, but the film itself doesn’t seem the right fit for an Indiana Jones film. It’s all a bit ghoulish, but in a puerile, juvenile kind of way. It’s dark and ugly, with few moments of fun throughout, and even Harrison Ford looks bored through the whole thing. It’s certainly not his finest hour as an actor, though he suffered an injury during filming which might explain some of the discomfort evident.
The whole human sacrifice climax goes on and on, to no benefit of the film whatsoever. It’s dreary, and seems much more archaic to its time period than the Nazi stuff did in the other films. This is cornball, racial stereotype voodoo bullshit. It’s also just an obnoxiously loud, somewhat mechanical film that is ironically more indicative of a latter-day George Lucas than 80s Spielberg. There’s lots of noise, complicated contraptions, creepy-crawlies and Capshaw’s incessant screeching. Add to that the most obnoxious, insistent and unhelpful music score of John Williams’ otherwise stellar career (“Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “Superman”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), and you’ve got a pretty headache-inducing, unlikeable mess.
There’s certainly some fun to be had here (including a cute recall to the ‘shoot the swordsman’ scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), but only in fits and starts, and the rollercoaster ride-style action is good for some blockbuster thrills, but seems mechanical when there’s too much of it too often. Still, some scenes do stand out as fun: There’s a really awesome Bond-like stunt early on where Indy and co jump out of a plane, but use an inflatable life-raft/boat instead of a parachute as they slide down snow and into water rapids. That’s exhilarating stuff. By far the best thing in the entire film is the mine cart chase scene 90 minutes in. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, almost exactly like one. Just with more gunfire. So I can’t deny that the climax is actually fun. It’s just hard to have too much fun when the whole thing is so damn loud and obnoxious. It’s tiring. It’s been excellently shot by Douglas Slocombe (“The Blue Max”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), even if the scenery probably does most of the work. I may have groaned at Spielberg self-indulgently recalling “Casablanca” with Harrison Ford’s entrance in the film, but I did enjoy the performances of Roy Chiao and his henchman Ric Young. In fact, the film could’ve used a lot more of them, they’re much more interesting than the stereotyped Indian cultist villains. Also, it’s hard not to love Jonathan Ke Quan’s Short Round character, even if I will always think of him as Data from “The Goonies” (a much, much better “Raiders”-esque film for a younger audience, that nonetheless somehow- wrongly- gets the same criticisms hurled at it that I’m hurling at this film).
Some of it is fun, most of it isn’t, and all of it is far too loud, obnoxious, soulless, and excessive. It’s a total miscalculation. Kate Capshaw’s astoundingly annoying performance is particularly detrimental (even she herself has spoken out against her insipid character over the years!), but just about everyone is having an off day here. It appears both Spielberg and Lucas (the latter of whom was going through a divorce during the making of the film) have subsequently realised it, and don’t think it’s anywhere near what it could’ve and should’ve been. Also, what’s with the virtual walk-on with Dan Aykroyd adopting an accent somewhere in between English and C3PO? Weird and pointless, if you ask me. The film is mostly unfunny, too. And yet, this is some peoples’ favourite Indiana Jones film (I think “Raiders” is one of the greatest movies ever made). Go figure. I think this one’s a joyless slog.