Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (United States, 1984)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The explosive (and not entirely unexpected) success of Raiders of the Lost Ark ensured that the movie-going public would meet Indiana Jones again. And, indeed, as soon as Harrison Ford removed the mantle of Han Solo for the final time, he once again donned the fedora. It's understandable that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had difficulty re-creating the fun and nonstop action of the first Indy movie. Even though Raiders was descended from a long line of movie house serials, the 1981 movie had represented an introduction to a new generation; to them, it was fresh and new. The Temple of Doom did not have that benefit. It had to stand or fall on its own merits and it did a little of both.

There are two things I remember about The Temple of Doom during its original theatrical run. Everyone had to see it - it was the must-see theatrical event of the summer - and it was hard to find someone who wasn't disappointed. It wasn't just that the breezy sense of freshness was gone; it had been replaced not merely by something darker but by something a little mean-spirited. The famous "heart removal" scene became the impetus for the creation of the PG-13 rating. In trying to take their character and his adventures in a direction that would not copy Raiders, Lucas and Spielberg leeched a lot of the fun out of Indy. Torture. Child abuse. Hearts ripped out. Black magic. It was all a little too much. And the inclusion of ill-placed sequences of physical comedy didn't lighten the tone so much as make the movie occasionally feel schizophrenic.

The idea to make The Temple of Doom a prequel was also a mistake. One of the assets of Raiders was the way in which the characters interacted, especially Indy and Marion (Karen Allen), and Indy and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). These relationships formed the backbone of Raiders. Yes, audiences flocked to theaters to see the action but it was their fondness for the characters that enriched the experience. The chemistry between Ford and Allen crackled; these characters were made for each other. So what happened with The Temple of Doom? Gone are Marion and Sallah. In their places: Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Ke Huy Quan). With all apologies to Ms. Capshaw, who obviously appealed strongly to the director, she's no Karen Allen. Any chemistry between her and Ford is accidental and incidental. As a love interest, she's a bust. Her role is therefore to scream a lot, get into trouble from which she needs to be rescued, and annoy the hell out of viewers who are tired of this sort of comedic damsel in distress act. It might be acceptable if it was more amusing and less tedious.

The cliffhanger-tinged action that made the first movie so appealing has been toned down. There's an extended sequence at the opening and another one at the end but, excepting a scene involving bugs and spikes, there's not much in the middle. That's not to say that The Temple of Doom is boring but it lacks the momentum that drove the first movie from its opening scene to its closing moment. In terms of all-time Indiana Jones stunts, I'd stack the plane escape (near the beginning) and the mine car chase (near the end) against anything else Lucas and Spielberg have put on film. It's too bad there weren't more moments like this. Raiders has so many it's difficult to single them out. The Temple of Doom is more selective and not the better for it.

The Temple of Doom opens in 1935 Hong Kong, with archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in trouble with a local crime lord. As is his style, Indy has to make a daredevil's escape - this time in the company of his pint-sized sidekick, Short Round, and a nightclub singer, Willie Scott. Eventually, after a series of improbable close calls, this trio ends up in India, where they are implored by the leaders of a small village to retrieve a stolen magic stone. More because he senses a chance for fame and fortune than because he cares about the villagers, Indy agrees. This results in a journey that takes him into a majestic palace with a dark secret. Members of the rulership are involved in the Thugee cult, and their plans are to use dark magic to accomplish world domination. Dr. Jones ends up being the "fly in the ointment" (to quote another '80s action movie).

Parents and their offspring alike were startled by what Spielberg revealed in the depths of the title location. Children shackled and force to work under threat of being whipped. Indiana drugged and homicidal. Brutal physical punishment - far more graphic than in the first feature. The setting is one of fire and brimstone, reminiscent of one of Dante's levels of hell. Lucas has been quoted as saying that as he had made The Empire Strikes Back darker than Star Wars, so he wanted to make The Temple of Doom darker than Raiders. He achieved the goal, but few would argue that The Temple of Doom is anywhere close to being as successful as Empire.

There is something to be said of the grimmer tone and the fact that The Temple of Doom doesn't feel like a retread of Raiders. In fact, the film holds up better than the lighter Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which often feels like a re-make of Raiders with Sean Connery thrown in for comic relief. As I mentioned earlier, it's not the darker turn that makes The Temple of Doom uncomfortable at times; it's its mean-spiritedness. Some of the scenes of torture go too far, especially for PG movie. We come to an Indiana Jones movie to have fun; some of what goes on here is anything but that. It's tough to say which is more out-of-place: the awful slapstick act of Willie as she avoids animals while camping outside or the scene in which the villainous Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) plunges his hand into a victim's chest and rips out his heart, then holds it up so everyone can see it beating. The moment has become as iconic as the chestburster scene in Alien, but perhaps not for the right reasons. It sent countless parents storming from theaters with their horrified children in tow.

Ultimately, though, this is only one of several problems to plague The Temple of Doom. It could easily have survived the darkness had the rest of the film been on firm ground. But Indy's companions are weak; we don't identify with them the way we did with Marion and Sallah. There's less action and more overt comedy, and neither change works to the benefit of the story. Raiders managed the perfect blend of both; The Temple of Doom loses the recipe. Still, when all is said and done, this remains an Indiana Jones adventure, and Harrison Ford is as perfect in the role the second time as he was the first. He's the ideal mix of heroism and self-interest; machismo and practicality; roughness and culture. He can be James Bond or Han Solo or Sam Spade. Whatever else The Temple of Doom may lack, it's got Indy, and that's more than a little benefit.

By my reckoning, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a nearly perfect film. There was no way The Temple of Doom could have equaled it. Yet, the movie doesn't fall just a little short - it falls considerably short. Even all these years later, a pall hangs over it - a whiff not necessarily of failure but of expectations missed. Sadly, while things would lighten up for installment #3, the change in tone didn't equate to an upswing in quality.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (United States, 1984)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri
Screenplay: Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Music: John Williams
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1984-05-23
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1