Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – Directed by Steven Spielberg – Starring Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Jonathan Ke Quan, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth, Philip Stone, and Dan Ackroyd.
What do you do with a movie like TEMPLE OF DOOM?
On the one hand, it’s not a very good movie; it’s dark and depressing, full of unmemorable characters that feel like they’re pulled from old adventure stories that would be better off being remembered for their style and passion instead of their use of racial stereotypes.
On the other hand, it’s an Indiana Jones movie, and we’ve only got four of them.
While TEMPLE OF DOOM isn’t a very good movie, it’s not a numbingly bad movie, either. There’s certainly a lot of stuff going on, and only the overly long and drawn out set piece in the middle of the film depicting human sacrifice really constitutes as boring. Like its predecessor RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, TEMPLE is still a roller coaster, it’s just a roller coaster in an amusement park I don’t want to visit.
There are so many little things wrong with TEMPLE that it’s like somehow everyone involved had a brain cramp during the entire production that led to incredibly questionable decisions. At the core of the movie is still Harrison Ford playing Indy, but it’s not a particularly involved or passionate Indiana Jones this time around. Still, Ford is a pro and Indy is a great character and he finds ways to make his part mostly enjoyable. If only the same could be said for the rest of the film.
Most of the problems of the film seem to stem from, or revolve around the Shrieking Harpy. Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) is a singer at a Shanghai nightclub that gets dragged into Indy’s adventure after she inserts herself into the wrong place at the wrong time. She then spends the rest of the movie either b*tching and moaning or shrieking in fear. There’s no narrative arc to her character, at all, which is what ultimately damns her in my eyes. Willie is at her worst during her first night at camp in the jungle. As Indy and Short Round play poker by the campfire, Willie is “AAAAIIIIIIEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!”ing all over camp as she runs into various animals. She’s a horrendous character and Spielberg and Lucas treat her incredibly poorly. Willie is just this money-grubbing, shallow, shrieking, awful woman.
Where’s Karen Allen? Where’s Marion Ravenswood’s moxie? Her resourcefulness? Who thought replacing a tough, capable, but vulnerable woman with a scream queen was a good idea?
And worse, what’s happened to Indy? With Marion, his wrongs were things of the past that he spent the film trying to atone for, either overtly or as a by-product of who he was as a man at that stage in his life, but with Willie’s, Indy’s dickishness is happening NOW, right in front of us. He’s gone from being this awkwardly romantic figure to a guy just trying to get laid by a hot woman in an Indian palace. He doesn’t remotely like Willie, and yet she’s hot so he’s going to take a run at spending the night in her bed as opposed to his own. Worse, given the way Short Round acts about Indy’s real reasons for wanting to see Willie that night, the inference is that he’s done this sort of thing plenty of times before.
There’s a bit of a James Bond vibe running through TEMPLE that doesn’t work and is curious for its inclusion. Spielberg has always said he wanted to direct a James Bond movie, and that RAIDERS was his chance to do that kind of grand, globetrotting adventure. TEMPLE has two scenes with a Bond feel to it and neither of them work. The second is the seduction scene above, while the first is the opening scene of the movie. Where RAIDERS gave us the phenomenal temple/rolling ball sequence with Indy in his signature geat, TEMPLE sees Indy dressed in a white-jacket tux at a Shanghai nightclub dealing with Chinese gangsters. Indy gets poisoned and the antidote is in a vial that keeps being knocked around the floor. It’s lame.
Another problem with TEMPLE is that there’s no joy. RAIDERS had a passionate Indiana Jones trying to find a treasure before his main, Nazi-hired rival found it. In TEMPLE, Indy is guilted into trying to recover a stone precious to a small village that’s missing its children.
Missing kids, slave labor, human sacrifice … not exactly a whirlwind of super-fun good times. The stock bit of conventional wisdom that’s sprung up around TEMPLE OF DOOM is that it’s too dark, but I think the problem isn’t that the film is too dark, but rather that the filmmakers didn’t have enough faith in the dark story to see it all the way through. If you want to do a grim movie, do it, but don’t do a grim movie and then try to pretend it’s not by having a the shrieking buffoon-slash-love interest and some unbelievably ridiculous stunt sequences.
There’s two stunt sequences here that stretch my willingness to believe. The first is when Indy, Short Round, and Willie jump out of a plane IN A RAFT. God. Stop. Then the raft goes over a waterfall and lands fine AGAIN. If the whole film operated on this idiotic level, fine, but it doesn’t. Spielberg uses this scene to counter all of the dark stuff by giving us a bit of the ridiculous. The second sequence is the mine cart chase. There’s a couple of unbelievable bits (the cart jumping over a big break in the tracks and landing perfectly so they can keep going) but at least it’s a really fun, engaging scene.
Unfortunately, there’s no signature villain here, as TEMPLE trades in the slick charm of Belloq for mad priests in ceremonial paint and headdress. Spielberg doesn’t bother to create any of the villains as individuals – they just fit stereotypical roles of dangerous savages trying to kill the hero.
Way too much of the movie takes place inside, too. It seems like we’re always in a nightclub or plane or palace or tunnel or cave or mine … everything feels cramped and poorly lit. The humor almost always fails, too. Were people still laughing in 1984 at foreign cultures eating weird food?
If there’s one shining star in TEMPLE OF DOOM, it’s Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan, who’s screen-credited as Ke Huy Quan). Far from the annoying kid sidekick he could very well have been, Short Round is smart, resourceful, and most importantly, morally on point. He’s turned Indy into his surrogate dad (Indy rescued him from the streets), and there’s plenty of bits where he’s just trying to mimic Indy, but mostly he’s protecting Indy or kidding with Indy or arguing with Indy about cheating at cards. Quan does a fantastic job making Short Round work, and it’s a shame that Spielberg thought it was a good idea to have Willie around to take screen time away from him.
TEMPLE OF DOOM is one of those films that’s probably better than its reputation, but only because that reputation is so low; Spielberg and Lucas have followed up the brilliant, seminal RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with a giant misstep. If TEMPLE had focused on the Indy/Short Round relationship – perhaps playing off Indy’s rough relationship with his own dad – and made Willie’s arc about integrating into that relationship, it would have gone a long to balancing all of the dreariness.
THE INDIANA JONES REVIEW COLLECTION:
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: Asps. Very Dangerous. You Go First.
TEMPLE OF DOOM: Two Hours of Kate Capshaw Shrieking Like a Harpy
THE LAST CRUSADE: You Lost Today, Kid. But That Doesn’t Mean You Have to Like It.
THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: How Much of Human Life is Lost in Waiting?