Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ★★★★½

This movie is so gobsmacking wild and dark and violent and over the top that it's hilarious thinking this was a PG rated tentpole movie released for families at the time - I have no doubt this would be R rated right now. Even then, it rips open the boundaries of current mainstream blockbuster style filmmaking. And I watched it fifty, one hundred times growing up. Loved it, still do.

I think on a scene by scene level, this is the best Indiana Jones movie. It just embodies that original 1930s bonkers adventure vibe more than the movies before and after it. That's a good and a bad thing, because the plot feels totally incidental and there's a lot of regrettable racism, along with an arguably misogynist portrayal of the female lead. But the good stuff, oh there's so much! The opening musical number that flows directly into a fight scene that flows directly into a car chase. Short breather, then bam - our heroes are falling out of an airplane in an inflatable raft, soaring down a mountainside, then fighting river rapids. Only then does the movie actually slow down a bit for some exposition and some frankly entertaining gross-out sequences. Here, we get a bit of the downside again - the creepy dinner scene is hilarious but also inseparable from its ignorant subtext: "Foreign people eat weird things, how strange! How not normal!"

But after the briefest of sexual tension moments right out of an 80s rom-com, we tumble into the crazy-bloody-uproarious-action-packed second half of the movie. It's got all the Indiana Jones greatest hits: an elaborate ancient trap sequence, more tightly built than anything in its predecessor, a frankly gonzo ritual sacrifice scene that I reenacted with friends over and over as a kid, voodoo dolls, child slave rebellion, mind control juice, a fight atop a rock crusher that ends in such a gruesome way Jones himself tries to save the bad guy, and finally that amazing mine cart sequence that still rocks my socks off 30+ years later in the age of CGI. The combination of green screen, miniatures, and cameras roving on actual hand built train tracks makes for a radical thrill, the kind of action scene that any director today would at best dream of pulling off.

But wait, there's still another climactic sequence: the rope bridge. This one slows the pace but ratchets the tension even higher. It's got massive heights, an army of sword-wielding cultists, and alligators waiting below with open jaws. You know how it plays out, but the second-to-second details give it an energy that leaps right off the screen.

The combination of all these elements gives Temple of Doom a truly mythological presence, sitting in history as a sort of meta-text on the stratospheric heights of what an adventure film can be. Sure, it never comes together with a real story or a full arc like the first Indiana Jones or the followup - here Jones is merely a character we're already on board with, going through a crazy adventure calculated to give us the most thrills per minute possible. It's weird to the point of hilarious that it involves the freeing of hundreds of child slaves, saving a starving village, and killing dozens of secret cultists in an underground compound that'd rival the craziest coked up fever dreams of any Bond villain. Such heavy thematic elements thrown together with the silliest, frilliest vibes possible with a "fuck it, the action justifies it all" attitude - and the thing is, it really does. It works. By the end the only feeling is "whew, what a ride!" rather than any emotional hangover from seeing kids whipped by scary adult soldiers or, y'know, seeing a guy turned into paste on a rock grinding wheel.

I wonder if they'll ever make another massive budget mainstream movie this weird again. I don't even know if it'd work without the offensive stereotypes and awkward throwback mechanics baked into its DNA. I fully recognize that if I saw this for the first time today, as an adult, rather than having grown up with it, I would probably be rating it lower. The bad stuff is really bad, and the lack of a true arc lessens its impact as a movie, there's no denying it. But everything else is done with such breathless ambition, I can't help but admire its construction as the peak of this type of movie.

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