Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Review: Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Studio: Lucasfilm
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Release: 28 May 1984
  • Genre: Action, Adventure

There are some superstitions fans use to determine which things in some series are any good.  For the Star Trek movies, it's whether or not the digits of the installment number add up to an even sum.  With the Mobile Suit Gundam video games, it's whether the letter Z is in the title.  And in the Indiana Jones film series, it's whether or not the main villains are Nazis.  The second film in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, does not put the man up against Nazis, but rather an Indian religious cult.  But far be it from me to treat these superstitions as the reason as to whether something is bad, or a rule for something being bad in the first place.  This is the first feature film review I've reviewed on this blog; the format will be a plot recap with critical comments here and there.  Spoilers will be marked, but read with care in case I miss something.

The setting for this movie starts out in Shanghai, China in 1935.  The opening credits play over a musical number performed for the patrons of a nightclub, including Dr. Henry Jones Jr. himself.  Turns out the song, "Anything Goes", was written in the real world in 1934, and translated to the undefined Chinese dialect for the movie - way cool.  Indiana's business for being here involves making a trade with Lao Che, some crooked crime boss.  Don't worry too much about him; we won't so much as hear about him after the first few scenes.  But after completing the trade, he succeeds in poisoning the man.  The magnificent monster then makes another offer with Jones: the diamond he was just given in exchange for an antidote for the poison.  A bout of chaos ensues, drawn out because the crowd gets scared and start kicking the antidote and diamond about, but Indy steals the antidote and the show's lead singer, a girl called Willie Scott, and makes his getaway in a car driven by Short Round, an eleven-year old Chinese boy.  Did they *have* drivers' licenses in pre-communist China, or are we not supposed to care?  Oh, and the name of the place is "Club Obi Wan".  I can't decide whether I find that clever or corny.

I suppose now would be a good time to get to know our new supporting cast.  Harrison Ford returns as Jones, no problems there.  No, the problems lie with Willie (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan).  Willie spends nine tenths of her time on-screen screaming in the face of danger, and the other tenth developing a wildly vacillating love-hate relationship with Indy.  Short Round, despite being more helpful, is somehow no less annoying.  And bear in mind I never had a problem with Jar Jar Binks.  Think about that.

So Jones and his two friends escape on a plane... owned by Lao Che.  Before the plane crashes, they are forced to bail out by - get this - falling out on a life raft onto the snow of the Himalayan mountains.  I have no idea if that's possible, nor do I think it would be a good idea to test it (unless you're the Mythbusters.  P.S. Please get on that, Mythbusters.).  But get this - this movie hasn't yet jumped the shark.  Think about that.

But the real plot begins when an old man leads them to a village in India and tells them about the children and sacred stone stolen from them.  They all go on an expedition to the Pankot Palace, with all the animals of the jungle creeping Willie out.  When they get to the palace, they are greeted by the kid Maharajah and his prime minister, who provide them with a feast of creepy crawlies.  Despite the warm reception, the meal grosses out Willie, Short Round, and everyone in the audience.  It's stereotypes like that which gave this film a bad rap with the nation of India, who demanded final cut privileges and forced production to move to the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka.  And this movie still hasn't jumped the shark!

Back to the plot.  Although Indy is unable to get any leads about the village's troubles from the hosts, an assassination attempt has him exploring his and Willie's bedrooms for a secret passage.  On their way, they avoid getting crushed by a spiked ceiling - accidentally triggered by Short Round - and discover the eponymous temple of doom.  They walk in on a ceremony where a devotee is locked in a cage, gets his heart pulled out of his chest by the head priest, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), and - still alive - is lowered into a fire pit as a willing sacrifice.  This is no simple pool of lava, folks, it looks like a portal to Heck down there.  Somehow, the crudeness of the special effects only serve to make this scene scarier.  And this, my friends, is where the movie jumps the shark.  In lighter news, Mola Ram is the only one of the Thuggees who speaks Hindi.  Since production was moved to Sri Lanka, his mooks all speak the local Ceylonese.

In the aftermath of the ritual, Indy gets caught trying to steal back the stones.  He gets force-fed a potion which traps him in the suggestible state "Black Sleep of Kali Ma" and starts conducting another ritual, this time with Willie as the sacrifice.  Meanwhile, Short Round is sent to work with the imprisoned children in the mines, where according to Indy two more sacred stones are assumed to be, but he escapes and wakes up Indy by thrusting a torch at his chest.  And *how* did he know about that?  Was it just a lucky break, did he do it without knowing he would free Indy's mind, or did he overhear it?  No, not that I recall; it just comes out of *nowhere*, without any explanation!  And Willie's screaming throughout the whole ordeal only makes things worse.

With that shizzle out of the way, Indy steals the three sacred stones and starts freeing the child slaves.  But he is double-teamed by a tough-as-iron guard and the Maharajah, under the Black Sleep of Kali Ma and armed with a voodoo doll.  Yeah, I don't think they had those in India, but the ritual from before took inspirations from other cults around the world, so what do I know?  Indy is unable to fight because of all the intermittent pain from his voodoo stabbings, but Short Round takes another torch and wakes up the Maharajah, letting Indy finish the job and escape with his friends by mine cart.  You know, I grew up after this movie came out, so I've been exposed to a great deal of mine cart chases.  It's weird to see this sort of thing as it became a cliche and then see the one that started it all.  It's like songs written by Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles.

Back to the plot, the mine chase scene ends when the brake lever breaks and Indy stops the cart by pressing his feet on the wheels.  Yeah, it's another Mythbusters moment, but as far as I'm concerned, the movie already jumped the shark, so what do I care?  But the tunnels are flooding with water, forcing Indy and his friends to escape onto the cliffs outside.  There's a pretty funny scene which plays out like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a mook shows off with a sword and Indy shoots him in response, except he doesn't have a gun!  You don't suppose he was thinking of the gun he dropped during the car chase back in Shanghai?  Nah, that would be giving us way too much credit.

But before we can leave, we have one more future cliche where our heroes are trapped on a rope bridge.  Given a choice between giving himself or the sacred stones up, he chooses instead to hang on and cut the bridge.  Again, show me something I won't see before.  With half of the bridge hanging along the cliffside, Mola Ram climbs down and tries to steal one of the stones.  But Indy stops him by - get this - chanting a spell which makes the stone glow hot and burn Ram's hand, making him fall down to the crocodiles below!  How did he learn this spell, and how did he know what it would do?  Was it something the old man in the village said?  I don't know, but even if this were true, you can't count us to remember something that seemed so trivial at the time!  And if not, EXPLAIN!!!  Well, what's important is he returned the children and stone to the village, and got the girl.  And that's the end.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

So, does the lack of Nazis cripple this movie?  No, but it is plagued with other problems, from the meaningless first act, to the lack of explanations for certain plot points, to some downright annoying supporting characters.  Given these faults and some scenes that are just too scary to watch again, I personally hate this moveie more than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Just stick to playing this movie in the Lego Indiana Jones games.

Writing: 2 whips out of 5
Acting: 1 whip out of 5
Technical: 3 whips out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)

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