Yo_Roboto’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Okee dokee Doctor Jones! Hold on to your potatoes!”
Gun to my head, “watch an Indiana Jones movie,” I’m choosing this one without hesitation.
The opening 20 minutes have:
- A brawl in a night club
- A four story stunt fall
- A car chase & shootout through a crowded market
- Jumping out of a plane in an inflatable raft
- Mountain sledding in an inflatable raft
- Falling off a cliff in an inflatable raft
- White water rafting in... yes, an inflatable raft.
A chorus line song and dance number???
This movie rules.
It generally gets a bad wrap for a few things:
1. It’s cultural sensitivity score is… well… pretty damn low, and it is showing a lot of symptoms of white-savioritis.
2. With depictions of human sacrifice, child slavery, forced-blood-drinking, and torture, the overall tone is too grim for the light adventure template set by its classic predecessor – and the attempts at humor to offset that darkness are best defined by the word “attempts.”
3. Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is annoying.
While I think the movie stands on its own as a stunning work of movie making, and doesn’t need my help, I will, here, now, in this Letterboxd review with a ceiling of one-and-half likes, launch into a definitive defense of Temple of Doom.
I’ll start with the points above.
The Cultural Insensitivity
This is hard to defend. In general, it paints a very broad, uninvestigated portrait of India, containing stereotypes that the movie makes no attempt to counter-balance. In specific, the gross-out “haha other cultures eat weird food haha” dinner scene is likely the roughest bit. At best, you could say that the movie is not mocking an entire subcontinent’s cuisine, and that it’s just this one culty palace that eats weird shit. But that’s a tepid argument at best, as the food only seems to gross out the ‘normal’ (read: white) people.
On top of all that, the gross-out comedy stings repeatedly interrupt a tense tête-à-tête between Indy and Chattar Lal. In the end, I think that while the movie overall is not disastrously racist, and never feels maliciously so, there’s really no defending this scene. It’s just one of those things you have to cringe through, and appreciate the excellent performances by Roshan Seth as Lal and later, Amrish Puri as an all-time-great movie villain, Mola Ram.
The Dark Tone
Obviously, the second criticism, of the movie’s dark themes, has aged out of fashion. Now, the horror elements are seen as one of the film’s biggest strengths. They stylistically pushed the series outside of its expected parameters, and people appreciate that more now than they did when they left the theater shook on opening night.
Also, seeing a dude’s heart get ripped out of his chest, keep beating, then catch fire in the villain’s hand is awesome. Full stop. But there’s more to the darkness than just the surface-level palette. Unlike the other Indy films, this is the only time in the series we really see the villains being, you know, villainous, outside of their interactions with Indy. The other Indy films rely on our fore-knowledge of nazis as history’s greatest scumbags, rather than explicitly show their villainy. Indy never really comes up against them ideologically; that they’re human garbage is largely irrelevant to the plot – he’s simply competing against them for a prize.
In Temple of Doom, Indy actually makes the choice to be a hero. He has his treasure in hand at the halfway point, but he makes an active decision to stay and fight for more than just treasure. Showing what he’s fighting to stop is essential to motivating that choice.
The darkness is more than just a dollop of horror tropes – it’s an essential plot element that motivates the protagonist’s quest. (And yeah, that flirts with being a bit white-savior-y, but that’s kinda unavoidable when a movie like this has a setting like this.)
Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is annoying. This critique is understandable. As a character, on the surface, she feels very much written from a ‘girls are icky’ 11-year-old mindset.
It’s a very shriek-y performance of a shriekily written character.
But so much of the vitriol aimed at this character ignores the great work Capshaw is doing here. Her comedic timing is exquisite, and she really creates a character that has more depth than is readily recognized. Throughout the movie, her screaming diva facade slowly fades to reveal an inner toughness.
She’s never a tough-as-nails ass-kicking badass, but she’s not supposed to be. She’s pissed that this asshole adventurer waltzed into her nightclub and upended her life – and understandably doesn’t like centipedes in her pajamas. Capshaw’s performance nails that. Her mini-monologue about her magician father is great, and her chemistry with Harrison Ford is undeniable.
Am I crazy for thinking she’s actually a better match for Indiana Jones than Marion Ravenwood?
Capshaw’s performance isn’t the only great character work going on here. As mentioned before, Roshan Seth brings a simmering, sinister civility to Chattar Lal, and Amrish Puri is pure, unhinged madness.
This is also, I think, Harrison Ford’s best work as Indiana Jones. His character really gets run through the paces in this, and he never misses a beat. No surprise that one history's greatest movie stars easily carries a movie built around him, but he brings nuance to a performance he could have easily coasted through. In addition to the roguish adventurer we fell in love with in Raiders, here he floats between fear, greed, and arrogance all while playing everything from poisoned to possessed to paternal.
And speaking of paternal… Let’s talk about Indy’s one true son. Short Round. Played to utter perfection by Ke Huy Quan.
Short Round is a character who, under no circumstances, should work.
Kids in action adventure movies are terrible. They undermine the tension at every turn – because the audience knows nothing bad can happen to a kid – and they often force the narrative into some dumb “learning to be a parent” bullshit (sorry Jurassic Park, you’re public enemy #1 in this court). Topping all that off, child actors are almost always terrible. From stilted line readings to bad energy, nothing kills a scene quicker than a kid botching their delivery.
But Short Round is a towering exception.
Quan is so funny, his lines are infinitely quotable thanks almost entirely to his delivery, his interplay with Ford is stellar, and his pure wonderment at the movie is contagious. He’s the heart and soul of this movie, and the script smartly lets Indy be a father figure to him without turning the movie into an “Indy learns to be a father” plot.
A big part of what makes Short Round work is the movie’s willingness to put him in danger. Kids in adventure movies often feel like the plot is working with a safety net, but Short Round gets stabbed, whipped, and forced into slavery! And the stunt where he jumps off the falling ladder and grabs onto a rope is my favorite in a movie packed with outstanding stunts.
In my humble opinion, Short Round’s absence from Indy 3 & 4 are among those films’ biggest crimes (and part 4 has some pretty big crimes.)
I could go on about this movie for pages. It’s one of those movies that I adore so much it renders me incapable of brevity, and I waste half an unemployed morning writing about it for no one.
I could talk about the action scenes, I could talk about the stunts, I could talk about the production design (best sets ever?), I could talk about the elephants, I could talk about how it makes more sense as a sequel to Raiders rather than a prequel, I could talk about how icky it is that the British colonial army comes to the rescue, I could talk about how much the “Indy is poisoned” sequence scared me as a kid…
But I won’t. This movie is flawed, but wonderful.