Thursday, July 13, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Aren't you glad you used Dial?

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny feels like your last high school class reunion where you spot old faces and gossip about missing ones. O look Harrison Ford with his Traveller hat! Yanking on his leather whip! O look John Rhys-Davies as Sallah driving a yellow cab! O and isn't that--? Yes it is now shut up we aren't meant to spoil anything (that's a job for TikTok). 

Was Antonio Banderas as Renaldo part of the original series? No, but he's such a warmly grizzled presence we should grant him honorary membership anyway. Was Toby Jones as Basil Shaw? No, but he's a crucial part of a flashback sequence so he's in on a pass. Was Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Basil's daughter (and Indy's goddaughter) Helena? No, but she's part of the newer generation meant to draw us into this creaky franchise; she gets a shiny fresh badge all her own. 

Is someone's missing? Yes, but not anyone on-camera; Steven Spielberg handed directing reins for the first time down to James Mangold, a filmmaker I've always considered more adept at drama (Heavy, Copland) than action (3:10 to Yuma; The Wolverine) tho apparently he much prefers mixing genres (Logan).

For the record, not a fan of Logan; it comes up with an interesting premise (mutant superhero nearing end of his career), doesn't quite follow through on said premise (falls back to yet another anti-mutant conspiracy plot confronting yet another superpowered foe when what we really want to see is Logan confronting his estranged mutant superpowered daughter-- one physically or mentally taking down the other, preferably the latter). More, Mangold is a competent director of actors and teller of tales-- he knows all about emotional beats and dramatic resonance-- but can't quite give the film the editing rhythm or visual style to would elevate it above its genre.

Same here: Spielberg's absent and we miss his gift for intricate Rube Goldberg sequences, the way disparate elements can fall apart and fall together in surprising, often hilarious ways-- I'm thinking of the opening to Temple of Doom (arguably the best Indy movie) where a diamond, a poisoned glass of champagne, and a blonde in glittery red sequins singing Noel Coward in Mandarin all join in a delightfully intricate dance / chase sequence. Anything goes, all right, or at least do here. 

You don't get that in this picture, though Indy toppling library stacks comes somewhat close. There's a foot chase on a train at night, and while the moonlight gives everything a lovely silver sheen, some of the long shots of men running atop the cars look awkwardly digitized. Ford was reportedly de-aged for this opening but I strangely didn't mind much, the process having improved since Scorsese inflicted it on Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman and Gareth Evans inserted a barely alive Carrie Fisher in his Rogue One; at least Ford here doesn't look like a broiled blankfaced lobster. More perturbed by the fact that the chase feels exhausting rather than inventive, lacks the snap crackle and pop that Spielberg might have brought to the party. In Tangiers there's a fast-paced pursuit involving a car (later two cars) and a tuktuk (later two tuktuks) but the mayhem is so confusingly shot and edited you can't keep track of what's chasing what, who's driving who, in what direction, and why-- a pity because some of the stunts look genuinely impressive, if not dangerous. There's so little set-up and the payoff's so quickly brushed aside that none of it really registers. 

Talk about brushing things aside (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie!): Mads Mikkelsen's Jurgen Voller is meant to be a villainous Nazi, one of many in Indy's career who leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake, but Indy seems oddly unfazed. O he pauses to bend over a murdered colleague or two, but-- is he really in that much of a hurry to recover the stolen Archimedes' dial or does he really not care about his university workmates? Either way it would be nice to hear his thoughts on the subject. Later Banderas makes an appearance as the gregarious Reynaldo, and we eagerly wait to see how his character might develop but Voller cuts those expectations short as well. Ford as Indy looks suitably dismayed, and later snaps at goddaughter Helen for being so callously exultant, but quickly forgets about his friend as they move on to the adventure's next chapter. I'd especially like to hear his thoughts on this man's passing, at least in one of the several quieter downtime moments when they're in a train or boat or plane and there's little else to do; Indy may not care about his New York co-workers but Reynaldo talks and acts like he's known Indy a long time, that they've shared plenty of adventure together. You'd think Indy would be more affected. 

Getting back to my chief complaint: we don't have Spielberg we have Mangold, so the chases or fights or other kinds of action are basically filler material to put the 'action' in a supposed action movie. I would have imagined the better decision would have been to lean into Mangold's strengths and just cut out as much of the action as possible, maybe emphasize Indy's doddering senior-citizen status and all; the bad back, the steelplated knees, the nine bullet wounds. Have him do stunts that an eighty year old can believably do (bookcases yes, maybe some walking-stick fencing) and leave most of the running and leaping to Helen and her young pickpocket/car-thief/sidekick Teddy Kumar (Ethann Isidore). Indy can complain about 'damned kids' and maybe discuss his digestive issues in detail-- the chronic constipation, the occasional bouts of diarrhea thanks to a diet of worms and bugs and expired mystery meat (don't get me started on mystery meat-- your best chance at guessing its true identity comes, you might say, at the end). 

And Indy can grouse all he likes about his son Mutt. Yes we've heard about how actor Shia LaBeouf has real-life issues with anger management, instability, substance abuse; that's actually not a problem but a perfect way to introduce the character. Mutt popping up in Indy's life strung out on drugs would be the archetypal '60s thing to do, not to mention a more interesting issue than Archimedes' dial with all its 'mysterious powers' (my unpopular opinion is that 'mysterious powers' have been done to death in these movies. In Raiders they're an elaborate imitation of the wraiths that flit about Bald Mountain in Disney's Fantasia (which itself was inspired by Murnau's masterpiece Faust)); in Temple of Doom they're limited to a brief attempt at open-heart surgery (a hilarious metaphor for George Lucas' divorce proceedings, and yet another reason why I like this second installment best despite the racism); in The Last Crusade it's the relatively restrained image of a lonely armored figure guarding a collection of cups for hundreds of years (one of several reasons this is my second favorite of the franchise); in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it's a giant digitally rendered saucer rising to the air, sucking up most of of the movie's budget in its wake). Besides, the dial turns out to have a hidden purpose devised by Archimedes that overturns Voller's or Indy's intentions, whatever they may be. 

Couldn't Mutt and Indy hash out their absent father / rebel son issues on some college campus, in the middle of an anti-war demonstration-- have Mutt race around in a love bug and Indy do wheelies on a wheelchair while evading the campus police? Couldn't they practice free love in some Greenwich Village crash pad with a pair of archeological groupies, come together over a bong, maybe? What we get-- including the last-minute surprise guest who yes is a genuine regular in the original series-- works out fine, is actually fairly moving thanks to Mangold's skill with drama and light comedy (the closing scene based on a routine from the original Raiders), but the finale comes after a wearying series of big-budgeted battles and mostly digitized bloodshed. The movie that lives in my mind rent-free plays more to everyone's strength, and sounds a helluva lot more fun.

First published in Businessworld 7.7.23z

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