The other night, I rewatched INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. Having revisited the first two recently, I was curious to see if it would hold up. A big difference between watching these movies now versus when they came out is that as a kid and then later as a teen, these felt like an original creation. As a cinema-savvy adult, I look at them more in the spirit they were conceived, as tributes to the old cliffhanger serials.
The score so far:
LAST CRUSADE: Not as cringingly awful as I had remembered. The tone is still the campiest (Yes, of course you can have my autograph, Indy, signed Adolf Hitler; and that 500 year-old knight?), some of the comedy doesn’t work at all (“Dad!” “What?” “Dad!” “What?”), and it’s actually the only one in which Indy quite definitely has sex with the female lead in the middle of it all, merely so we can get a cheap joke in later about how dad banged her too. That said, watching it without any expectations, there’s more fun to be had than I had given it credit for in ’89, when the lack of suspense and scares just pissed me off.
RAIDERS: Still a classic, no doubt, but I was shocked by how slow-paced it seemed relative to how I remembered it. And there are things in there that Internet geeks would tear to pieces if it were a new movie — most notably, how the hell does Indy know not to look at the Ark during the finale? Especially since he specifically refrained from blowing it up earlier because he wanted to see it opened just as badly as Belloq did?
CRYSTAL SKULL: A ton of fun. No need to reiterate why so soon after reviewing it.
Watching TEMPLE OF DOOM as a kid, I wanted to BE Short Round. I never wanted to be Indy, because he kissed girls (ewww). But Short Round was a kid who could do what Indy did, and even save the day when his mentor got in trouble. I could dig that. But now, as a grown up, I find kid sidekicks annoying. I was afraid this would be a deal-breaker.
I need not have worried. TEMPLE OF DOOM is not only as good as I remembered, but it holds up to my jaded cinephile eyes every bit as well as it did to the popped-out peepers of my youth. It is, in my mind, at this point, indisputably the best of the Indiana Jones movies.
How shall I count the ways? The primary one is imagination — truly, in this film, “Anything Goes,” as cued by the intro. I can name you umpteen movies with Nazis as villains, but can think of only one about a secret Hindu death cult that lowers people into lava. Tintin creator Herge used to say that he never traveled much, because on the rare occasions he did go somewhere exotic, it was exactly as he’d already pictured it — thus Tintin had many globetrotting adventures in imaginary versions of foreign countries, encountering cowboys and Indians in America and the Incas in Peru, all during the same time frame that he ended up becoming one of the first men on the moon. Kids reading those never questioned it – it felt right.
All of which is preamble to the fact that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seem to have stuck to an imaginary India rather than bothering to do much research on the real one. Listen, no Indian restaurant I’ve ever heard of serves live baby snakes or eyeball soup or even giant beetles; a guest at an Indian palace under British colonialism would have been far more likely to get served chicken tikka masala, don’cha think? [if I'm wrong, and there is such an Indian restaurant, somebody please tell me where so I can go]
And then there’s the Thuggee cult, which seems to be at least as influenced by Africa here as Asia, what with the Maharajah’s voodoo doll, the shrunken head on Mola Ram’s headpiece, and the “black sleep of Kali,” induced by drinking blood and cured by burning one’s flesh. Fantasy? Sure. Who cares? Not me. It works. Just like that crazy runaway mine chase — those tracks don’t really seem too well thought out by the Thuggee. Yet the action sequence that ensues, and is perhaps more than any other responsible for the notion of summer movies as rollercoaster rides, holds up to today’s standards.
I admit to not being too afraid of the leaf bugs that get in Kate Capshaw’s hair — the only frightening bugs in the whole sequence are a couple of centipedes. Chalk that one up to hanging with the bug-wrangler on Masters of Horror; I know that leaf bugs are totally harmless.
Critics of the movie have said that it’s sexist and racist, and they have a bit of a point — it portrays a 1935 attitude, with Indy at his most retro-assholeishness, out only for himself, treating Willie like crap and calling her “doll” or “sweetheart” non-stop, though like the sexist rogues of old, he ultimately does the right thing when called on, staying in the temple to free the kids when he could have bailed.
Meanwhile, Willie’s a materialistic opportunist who isn’t particularly nice either, and add to the mix Short Round the juvenile delinquent pickpocket, who serves as both surrogate son and servant, and you have a hilariously weird dysfunctional family unit (all named after pet dogs, too). Just as Chatter Lal says, “I cannot imagine anywhere in the world where the three of you would look at home.” Those who like their heroes kinder react badly, but I love it. And yet somehow the Indy/Shorty bond still trumps Indy/Mutt in the new one, though Mutt being a sulky adult, one should expect a different vibe.
Did anyone else notice that when Indy and Willie are having their sexual stand-off trying to get the other to give in and come to bed, Shorty is sleeping in Indy’s room? Are we to assume that had things gone according to plan, the two adults would have boned while the kid slept mere feet away?
Speaking of Shorty? I still like him too. The kid cheats at cards, and it takes nothing short of the threat of molten lava to bring tears to his eyes.
Then there’s Mola Ram. Like Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it’s amazing how little screen time and dialogue he actually has, relative to the impact and iconic status he has in our minds. A guy who rips hearts out for fun, and puts children on chain gangs. I used to get sad when Darth Vader died in Jedi, but to paraphrase Dino De Laurentiis, nobody cry when Mola Ram die. Is it a racist portrayal? It may be one of an evil Indian, but it doesn’t conform to any stereotype I know. Anti-racists would have a better case against Apu on The Simpsons than any of the Indian characters in TEMPLE OF DOOM.
The movie also brings us the only Indiana Jones villain in the whole series who doesn’t die — Lao Che (Roy Chiao). And he’s great; the opening scene at Club Obi Wan (damn, I remember those pre-Internet days when I literally thought I was the only one who got that joke) is still classic, both for the way it begins with a completely surreal Busby Berkeley tribute in Chinese, and centers around a glowing blue antidote that heals quicker than any existing drug. I’d love to see Lao return, but unfortunately I just read on imdb that Chiao died in his seventies. Maybe we can at least get an action figure.
Internet geeks of yesteryear would no doubt have howled as loudly about obvious bluescreen as they do about CGI now. Yes, there are a few shots where you can tell. And yes, if that’s enough to take you out of the movie, it has bigger problems than that. But it doesn’t, so it doesn’t.
Let us also not forget John Williams firing on all cylinders with the score — this is the only Indy movie from which I actually remember music other than the main theme. The Short Round theme and the Temple of Doom theme are up there with the best of them.
Plus: the spike chamber (love the part where the corpse starts sitting up), the elephant steeds, the elderly village shaman who had to learn his lines phonetically since he spoke no English (“On de vay to Delhi…You vill stop at PANKHOT!”), the “vampire” bats, “You know how to fly a plane, don’t you?” “No, do you?” [I believe the Young Indiana Jones show contradicts this, but I ignore those], the Dan Aykroyd cameo, the silencer muffled by popping champagne corks, the literal cliff-hanger at the bridge, the best use of a single four-letter expletive ever, Indy briefly turning evil…it’s insanely wonderful, in every sense of those words. And all because Lucas was going through a divorce.
To bring things full circle, Spielberg is now doing Tintin. Too bad this is the pussy Steve who now says he “apologizes” for TEMPLE OF DOOM and how it scared sensitive parents. Can it, Steve — you did good work here. And CRYSTAL SKULL gives me some hope for Tintin, though not as much as if you’d fully embrace the TEMPLE again.