Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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

(Top 250 reviewed)
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*beep*
"Heeeey Johnny Willy, it's Spielberg-asaur. I know it's like 5:13 a.m. in Boston and you probably gotta wake up and conduct an orchestra soon or some shit but just got back from visitin' De Palma on the set of Scarface with Star George ("---don't mention me") and the three of us got sucked into quite the late-night ski trip ("---Steve---") but Georgie and I ended up really spitballing while the straw was going 'round about the next Indiana Jones and okay what if we just said fuck it and open with something insanely different than Raiders like say a big Hollywood Busby Berkeley musical number of 'Anything Goes' except it's sung in Mandarin by this gorgeous blonde diva in a sparkly gold-and-red dress who's performing in like some swanky Shanghai nightclub ("I had nothing to do with this John, send help") wouldn't that be just fan-fucking-tastic?"

Whatever, it could've gone down like that.*

Insane introductory musical set piece aside, the James Bond homage is strong with that opener. We've got Harrison Ford gliding around Club Obi-Wan (snicker) in his white jacket looking more dapper than we've ever seen him, sitting down across from his enemies and coolly exchanging terse lines of dialogue which makes clear to all watching that neither party is there to fuck around. 

Series creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have long said that since they couldn't make a James Bond film, they decided to go one better and make an Indiana Jones film. While the initial big difference between the two would seem to be that one is a British spy and the other is an American archaeologist, there is (if you look close enough) also a key spiritual difference. While out in the field on a mission, James Bond is famous for somehow staying above the fray, maintaining a cool detachment and degree of professionalism to the point where you'd have a Bond like Roger Moore who could seemingly save the world without so much as catching an errant piece of lint anywhere on his suit.

Indiana Jones only wishes he could roll like that, but his adventures never seem to work out so smoothly. For one, they always get far too messy far too quickly. For two, Dr. Jones is way too obsessed with his work. Where Bond gets detached, Jones gets possessed, and Temple of Doom remains the primo example of when his relentless pursuit of archaeological artifacts almost swallowed up not only his soul but nearly led to the sacrifice of his "family."

As weird as it may sound, Temple of Doom is very much a family film---a movie that's core is, in large degree, about family and originally intended for an audience of families, but ultimately perhaps one of the darkest, most fucked-up family films ever made... so much so that it directly led to the creation of the PG-13 rating in America, resulting in parents giving a little more pause as to just what kind of entertainment their little angels were gobbling up.

But let's unpack the unusual nature of family in Doom a bit. We start at the nightclub with Jones trying to recover a diamond from a family of gangsters who are trying to recover the ashes of their Emperor ancestor. During the uh "tense negotiations" (to say the least) Indy loses Wu Han (David Yip), a longtime friend of his so close that he's practically family. Han dies in the archaeologist's arms, but not before establishing that he and Jones had been on many adventures together... and this one has gotten him killed by a gangster's bullet that Indy could not stop. 

Once out of the nightclub though Jones has the makings of a new surrogate family by his side: Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), a Chinese orphan Dr. Jones caught picking his pocket in Shanghai a few years back that soon became an assistant/apprentice to the archaeologist, and then Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), a sparkly gold-and-red dress wearing diva of a nightclub singer Jones ended up dragging along with him for the ride during his escape from the club, with the two then quickly falling into a love-hate relationship that feels not entirely unlike certain longtime marriages.

A few falls from an airplane/sled rides/white-water rafting trips later, the trio arrive in a small village in India that is not only suffering from blighted crops, but had the centerpiece of their local shrine (a mystical Sankara fertility stone) stolen from them... in addition to all of their children. The famished and distraught villagers are able to convince Jones to trek to a somewhat nearby ancient Palace they believe is now inhabited by a dangerous group that robbed them of both their sacred stone and their irreplaceable children.

Dr. Jones is clearly disturbed by what he sees at the village, but what really makes his eyes light up is the possibility of getting his hands on a Sankara stone. He's a learned enough academic to already know what it is, but also that there might be more than one nearby. What does having one of those stones mean? "Fortune and glory," Jones says. So off he goes to the dangerous Pankot Palace, Willie and Short Round in tow.

Turns out that the current head of household at Pankot, Mola Ram (a wonderfully malevolent Amrish Puri), has a devoted family of his own (and that's family in the Charles Manson sense of the word)--- the infamous Thuggee cult. Like Belloq before him in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mola Ram is a shadowy reflection of Jones, and shows what can occur when a charismatic, motivated, knowledgeable individual uses their ability to draw others to their cause for very dark and selfish purposes. 

So what happens when our little would-be family of three on their quest for fortune and glory cross paths with Mola Ram and his fraternal familial cult of the Thuggee, who are in search of the same? It pretty much turns into the road-trip vacation from hell. Dad is so intent on getting his Sankara souvenirs that he overlooks the very real spiritual danger of his quest and ends up literally possessed by the forces of darkness, leading to his violently striking the kid and just about ripping Mom's heart out. That's in addition to all the other fun encounters with lava, spikes, insects, chilled monkey brains, and yes, snakes.

Spielberg and Lucas (with the help of husband-and-wife screenwriting duo Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz) have crafted a very dark, energetic, occasionally funny adventure tale about the survival of family in the face of dangerous personal obsession, particularly for power and fame. Once again, as with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grand technique on display just blows me away. The score by John Williams is so sweeping and emotionally-charged, leaving little room to doubt how you are meant to feel at any moment. The on-location shooting in Sri Lanka is stunning, with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe once again doing amazing work for Spielberg, framing everything with a very literary half pulp adventure cover/half fairytale book kind of dream/nightmare haze. The costuming is across-the-board top-notch and the set design of the titular Temple is without peer too; you will never find a more evil-looking place of worship in film than The Temple of Doom, such an embodiment of the dark side of the organic cycle, dirt and death framed with Lucasfilm lava, yet another monstrous reincarnation of the old-school cinema settings, this time the giant forbidden underground sacrificial shrine.

There's also a lot of little things I love about Temple of Doom. The decision to have Willie Scott irretrievably lose Jones' gun like five minutes into the movie. The card game between Indy and Short Round, originally the result of an improvisational exercise Quan did with Ford during his audition. And while we're talking small stuff, the miniature work is pretty spectacular too, from the early inflatable-raft-as-parachute ride sequence (man I can't believe anyone ever complained about the believability of Crystal Skull's A-bomb refrigerator ride after we'd already experienced this nonsense) to the mine cart chase at the end. The meticulous scale model work here by Dennis Muren is on par with anything he did for the original Star Wars trilogy.

Despite all the praise I've rightly heaped on the film, the legacy of Temple of Doom regularly gets knocked about not only by contemporary audiences but by the creators themselves. Plenty of viewers these days are bothered by the occasionally cringe-inducing dated broad depictions Spielberg uses to punctuate his characters, but then we have the director himself making statements to the effect that he was in a bad place when he made this film that turned out so much darker than he intended, and how it's not really reflective of who he is as a person since "there isn't an ounce of [his] own personal feeling" in the film. I guess we're supposed to believe Spielberg made Temple of Doom while he was afflicted by the Black Sleep of Kali Ma?

Oh, Spielberg-asaur... on this count I must politely call bullshit. While it's true that screenwriters Huyck and Katz specifically requested permission to go darker with this sequel the way Empire Strikes Back did with the original Star Wars, this film is definitely you & George's baby. She's got your eyes and Lucas' beard and everything. You've tried to blame the whole thing on the fact that both of y'all' s marriages were disintegrating around the time of this film's production, but that's all the more reason you two own this. It's all right there, the workaholism (it was a lot of labor to become the two most medium-redefining commercially-successful filmmakers of the late 70s/early 80s), the risking damage to your family in the pursuit of fortune and glory, the raw painful emotion that comes when those you care about do get hurt (I get it, there's parts of this movie involving harming/protecting children that to this day still get an unusually emotional reaction from me... although a lot of that can probably be blamed on Williams). This is definitely your film, and a powerful reflection of who you two were and where you were both at in life when you made it. And it's pretty amazing and entertaining. Do more than just continue to profit off its existence in the franchise and the larger world of film... fucking own it.   


* I know it likely didn't go down like that and is probably all Lucas' fault, see also Radioland Murders

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