One Last Ride
In 1981 “Raiders of the Lost Ark” happened. For my money, it should be in the Top Five AFI films, alongside “Casablanca.” I don’t know why anyone likes “Citizen Kane.”
The tale of a rough and ready archaeologist, getting in adventures and killing Nazis while searching for the Ark of the Covenant, “Raiders” is one of the most action-packed and iconic films ever made. Being the ‘80s, sequels to successful movies started becoming a thing.
“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” arrived in 1984. Where “Raiders” was an action-adventure film, “Doom” was an action-horror movie—a perfect, Val Lewton-inspired genre shift that seemed like a letdown to fans of the upbeat, serial joys of the original. I loved it. But when that film wasn’t as well-received, they went back to the well with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, which finds Indy killing Nazis again and searching for another powerful Christian symbol, the Holy Grail—which might as well be another Death Star.
Yet “Crusade” had Indy, his father, Henry (Sean Connery), colleague Marcus (Denholm Elliott) and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) literally ride off into the 1989 sunset, after a charming film that closed out a magnificent trilogy.
Then, almost 20 years later, we got 2008’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which shifted the genre (somewhat naturally) to science fiction. It sucked for reasons that would take too long to explain here, but it did kill at the box office, and proved that Harrison Ford, as Indy, was still the kind of star who puts asses in seats. Thirteen years after “Crystal Skull”, we arrive at “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”
Now it’s 1944, and Indy is working for the OSS (a precursor to the CIA) during WWII with a nerdy partner, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones). They both seek the Lance of Longinus, the spear that pierced the body of Christ during the crucifixion. Like the Lost Ark, or the Holy Grail, Hitler is very much interested in these powerful, mythological weapons for the war, because where are we at in an Indiana Jones movie without a Christian icon and Hitler?
Indy and Basil realize the Lance is a fake, but they inadvertently discover something else. One half of the mythical Dial of Destiny, a device designed ages ago by Archimedes, that holds a mysterious power.
Meanwhile, Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), playing the smartest, luckiest, most impervious Nazi ever, is on their heels, wanting to claim the Dial for his own—until he meets his seeming demise. Cut to 25 years later.
When we meet Indy again, it’s 1969 in New York. War protestors are in the streets and The Rolling Stones rule the radio. He’s still an archeology professor, though now he’s old and boring. None of his students—even the girls—seem interested anymore. Our hero’s obviously at the end of the road. That’s when Basil’s daughter, Helena (co-writer, Pheobe Waller-Bridge) conscripts Indy to find the other half of the Dial, because (to her) it’s worth a lot of money and validates her now deceased father’s quest. Only Voller (who somehow survived and is still in hot pursuit), knows the Dial’s true power.
The box office returns for “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” make me sad. No one really asked for this film, much less for a 300-million-dollar one meant for the big screen, when most will just wait for it to drop on a streaming service. Part of that is the hubris of Disney, but “Dial of Destiny” is a far better film than “Crystal Skull” and feels like the perfect denouement for Indy, and very much deserving of the theater.
Remember when Daniel Craig was going to tap out on playing James Bond after the terrible “SPECTRE?” The creative team behind that series wound up getting Craig back for one last, good, Bond film, “No Time to Die.” I’m glad they did. Going out on a high note. It’s the same with Indiana Jones, and a nice corollary, since Steven Spielberg and George Lucas always considered Indy to be an alternate version of James Bond.
Rate them how you like, but where “Raiders” was a straight action movie, “Doom” was the horror film, and “Crusade” was the safe course correction, this is the quasi-sci-fi entry that “Crusade” should have been. The less said about “Crystal Skull” the better.
From the opening, balls-to-the-wall action sequence that sets everything up, where we find Ford convincingly young again thanks to our AI overlords, the ideas behind this flick are sacrosanct to our (if you have it) nostalgia for these films. Ford still sells the stunt work even as he’s closing in on 80 years old and like “Raiders” this flick barely stops for a breath. When director James Mangold asked Spielberg for advice about how to approach the character, he was told, “Always keep him moving.” Mangold clearly paid attention. And Ford is completely invested in a way I haven’t seen him be in decades.
Waller-Bridge makes a great foil, at first a playful antagonist, until Indy and her character’s goals align, putting them in pulse-pounding danger. Their chemistry is great. Mads Mikkelsen can play a malevolent bad guy in his sleep. The connective tissue performances from Toby Jones and Boyd Holbrook as one of Mikkelsen’s henchmen, along with a scruffy turn from Antonio Banderas as a ship’s captain, round out the game cast who all appear to be having a blast.
And that comes across, accentuated by a rollicking score from the legendary John Williams. It all looks and sounds fantastic and is a wonderful bookend to one of the greatest film series of all time. The absence of Lucas and Spielberg (who does produce) open the creative field for director Mangold, along writers Pheobe Waller-Bridge, Mangold, and David Koepp, to inject the shopworn series with fresh excitement and a heart-warming sense of derring-do and exploration. The biggest accolade I could possibly pay to their story is that, by the third act, I had no idea what would happen next.
That kind of thrill is rare.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is on the tail end of its theatrical run. Look for it soon on streaming.