Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Spoiled dancers, annoying kids...
With the success of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc (not to mention Return of the Jedi), Dr. Jones was destined to complete a trilogy. The second movie to feature Indy would be 1984's Temple of Doom, a movie that I've seen described as both the Indiana Jones series' Empire Strikes Back and as the worst film in the franchise. These are rather mutually exclusive descriptions, so I guess it's up to me to sort out the inconvenient truth from the fiction.

  Temple of Doom starts out with... wait a second. Why is Han Solo in a James Bond-ish white suit? Who's this guy he's talking to? What's so important about this dancer chick? An overcomplicated and semi-amusing action scene later and... who the hell is this kid? This isn't me nit-picking or being funny, this is my serious reaction to the beginning of the film. It's assumed that we know Indiana Jones. We've seen the other movie he appeared in, in which he seems to have a number of partners available for various situations, but no one partner. He's capable of being professional, but doesn't really seem the type for suits and balls- I gathered from Raiders of the Lost Ark that he would be about as comfortable in a white tux as his counterpart Han Solo would be... and yet here he is. In a white tux, at a high class ball in China, with a Chinese sidekick who's apparently been with him for years. Anybody else feel like they missed several seasons of a television series?

 Interestingly enough, there is no such thing as a television series featuring the Harrison Ford version of Indiana Jones. Somehow, I'm not shocked there. What I am shocked by is this pitiful attempt to hide selling out, trying to seem diverse and gain a younger audience by including Short Round and giving Willie better billing and visibility than the far more interesting Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is simply no way to make Willie a tolerable character. The only possible value Jones sees in her is the chance for a quickie where one otherwise wouldn't be and the audience doesn't even get that. As for Indiana Jones, I see more Han Solo than ever in him here. Not in his actions, necessarily, but in the way his luck fluctuates between horrendous and epic. I have to wonder about the moral standard for a character who will use somebody as a hostage, and then save her life minutes later, though- unless the hostage thing was never anything more than a bluff.

 Ford does have some interesting scenes, trying his range as an actor as the sage archaeologist and womanizer, shows his sinister side to great effect. However  Indiana Jones is really the only character worth his salt here (I've already mentioned Willie). The antagonists range from a Prime Minister who appears to make threatening overtures before vanishing from the plot, a juvenile puppet dictator who seems to range back and forth between being a good and bad guy, and an evil priest (shaman, or whatever other term you wish to use) who has some interesting supernatural powers but is so predictable and one-dimensional he's not even worth mentioning again. Then we get our other protagonist: Short Round. What is Short Round? He's a caricature. That's it. Seriously- picture the most stereotypical, caricatured Chinese kid you've ever seen in a movie. Broken English, annoying interjections, lack of social graces, thinks about fortune cookies all the time, you know the drill. Oh, and he cheats at cards, too. I'm starting to see how Nute Gunray and Watto were really a step up for George Lucas's portrayals of ethnicity.

 The plot isn't horrible. It starts off as Indy is making a deal for a diamond, which goes awry when he is poisoned. Violent slap-stick- the sort of slap-stick with guns- occurs, and Jones eventually gets the antidote but not his compensation. He grabs the dancer he was using as leverage for the scene (I'm still not sure why, considering that she was not the only dancer in her troupe, just the lead), and they escape, meeting Short Round in the process and finding themselves escaping on a plane owned by the man they're trying to escape from. The landing that they make here is something you have to see for yourself (assuming it's not all over TVTropes and Youtube), but I have to say that it definitely puts the refrigerator scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into context. The landing leads to more comedy, character development and exposition as the village Indy and the gang stumble across essentially tells them that he must retrieve a sacred stone from the Temple of Doom in order to receive their aid making it back to civilization. The trio visits the Temple, where they speak with the new government over a dinner that does a very good job of setting a very disturbing mood as well as making it clear that the child running the country is actually a puppet dictator who believes what he is told... at least, until we see him among those whose existence he swore to stamp out, and it becomes a little less clear. We get to see Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw try to seduce the other before giving in to arrogant egotism. Then someone tries to kill Indy. What the hell; I never thought the mood would be consistent in this movie.

 Indiana immediately starts checking statues and such when he realizes nobody is trying to kill Willie (whose confused comments he is completely ignoring), which clears him to enter the paths under the Temple. We see such things as the dead rising (never mentioned again, don't worry), and a rehash of the garbage masher scene from Star Wars: A New Hope. Finally, we meet the Thuggee cult. The first scene with the cultists indicates the level of supernatural we're dealing with here. We see the main villain of the movie pulling out a man's heart before lowering him, still beating, into a portal to hell. This is two years after Poltergeist- Stephen Spielberg, of all people, should know that these don't always have to be in the basement by now! Indiana is caught, and they force him to drink a blood-like fluid that possesses him and turns him into a cultist. Even though the Thuggee are aware of Willie and Short Round, they are not made to drink- instead, they throw Short Round in with other child slaves prospecting for sacred stones and intend to sacrifice Willie. This certainly sounds like a good idea- I mean, when have you ever heard of a kid getting loose and going places they're not wanted? That would be preposterous, right? It is here where we finally get some real drama in this film, as Harrison Ford puts on his best (and awesome) sinister face and Willie is about to be sacrificed. Thankfully, Shorty learned during a deleted scene how he could free Jones from the curse, so he does so. From here, the plot essentially ends- as does the drama- and the action part of the movie comes in. 

I'm not a huge action person. While I certainly enjoy fight scenes in movies, I'm not a big fan of elaborate, hard to follow action, nor does any action really recommend a movie to me on its own. This has an impact on my recommendation of the movie. The rest of the movie goes relatively predictably, with the same sort of slapstick action and antics that have made Indiana Jones famous. For me, though, this is the part of the movie that blurs together, just as it was during the first movie. To my admittedly non-fan eye, these sequences are relatively equivalent. They're not identical or terrible by any means, but if you want someone to analyze them, ask a true action fan. What counts is that (thanks to another deleted scene) the trio end up alone with the entire cult following them. Indy manages to get rid of the cult, and it comes down to a one on one fight, another decent and suspenseful scene despite the fact that the outcome was never really in doubt. So do I recommend Temple of Doom? Well, if impossible things like chilled monkey brains and annoying characters don't bother you as you wait during the lull between action scenes, then Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is your kind of movie. If, on the other hand, that sentence sounded particularly satirical and critical to you, this might not be your movie unless you're enjoying an Indiana Jones marathon with your friends. It's not a terrible movie, but it's not a particularity great one, either. Tell you the truth, if Willie had never made it to the final draft of the script, the film's score would be a good two stars out of ten higher. Not the actress's fault (I think). But I digress.

  Bill Silvia is a regular contributor at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews. You can find more of his work at


Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

I liked this show. But I liked all of the movies.

SQT said...

I love Indy too. That said, there are some fair points here. Kate Capshaw was incredibly irritating as Willy. Indy is a womanizer but it's hard to understand what he'd find appealing about a woman who spends most of her time shrieking and whining.

As far as Short Round being a cliche-- what cliche are we speaking of exactly? I can't think of a ton of smart-mouthed Asian kids in popular culture. I can think of the Asian as the math genius or the musical virtuoso, but not the street smart urchin. He was a necessary character as far as the plot was concerned because it's the only credible way to form a bridge to the other children held captive in the latter part of the film-- so I suppose you could pick apart the character as being added in for that part only.

I'm still not getting the Indy/Han Solo thing. I just think that's a stretch-- though good catch on the similarity to the garbage masher.

The Man in Black said...

Short Round is the embodiment of every negative, sneaky, broken English-speaking Chinese stereotype I've ever seen, and an annoying little kid to boot.

As for Han and Indy, Han Solo basically exists as a point of reference to make comparisons to for me right now, just like I would probably make comparisons to Count Dooku and Wilhuff Tarkin were I to start reviewing Hammer horror films.

SQT said...

Maybe I'm being too literal but I don't see Short Round as a negative racial stereotype. He's the Hollywood version of a street kid but I don't think it has specific racial overtones. And many movies and tv shows that have foreign characters show them speaking with broken English (think Ziva David on NCIS). But that's not inaccurate either. I had a Japanese teacher who lived in the U.S. for 30 years who didn't speak English as fluently as Short Round, and when I went to school in Japan I never ran into anyone who spoke with any more fluency either- I've been told our idioms are *really* tough to learn.

But then I'm predisposed to defend Indian Jones. I think it's so far superior to most franchises that are being made today.

The Man in Black said...

I agree with you about the trilogy, but I don't see anything defensible about the two guest stars in this film. And, it seems, neither did the makers of the third.

SQT said...

I will agree to a point. Most of movies were made to stand alone without reoccurring love interests until Marion comes back in "The Crystal Skull." Willy is seriously annoying- no argument there. I didn't mind Short Round and understand why he was included; and he offered the added bonus of taking screen time away from Willy. The precocious kid is a tired trope. In fact I am just now writing a book review that addresses that very point. It would stand as the weakest film of the series if "The Crystal Skull" hadn't been made.

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I agree that if Crystal Skull hadn't been made, Temple of Doom would have been the worst of the franchise (lucky we had LeBeef to make us realise that Temple wasn't all that bad, eh?).

I still enjoy Temple, though both Raiders and Crusade are far superior to it that it loses a lot of the Indy charm.