Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Kingdom Crystal Skull (2008), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) had the reputation as being the weakest of the series. Too dark, too grim, and too gory are some of the complaints I've heard lodged against it. Contrarily, while I was growing up, I considered it my favorite of the series, although I admit that might have been because most people I knew preferred Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and I wanted to be different from the pack. Looking back on it, I find it holds up remarkably well by charting into different territory that keeps it from falling into formula, making it perhaps the most unique entry in the series.

Following a botched deal in Shanghai with some gangsters in 1935 (making this a prequel to Raiders), famed archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) ends up in an impoverished Indian village with Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), a Chinese orphan, and Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), a nightclub singer. The village shaman tell Jones that the sacred Sivalinga stone has been stolen from its shrine, along with all the community's children, and he recruits Indy to help them to retrieve both the stone and children. Jones and his companions journey to Pankot Palace where, after a friendly reception by the young maharajah and his prime minister, they discover an ancient Thuggee cult operating in an underground temple, practicing human sacrifice, and using the village children as slave labor in the mines to search for the remaining Sankara stones. Things get even worse when the Thuggee high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) drugs Indy with the "Blood of Kali," making him a slave of the cult.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a globe-trotting adventure that took us from one exotic location to the next, from a South American jungle to the mountains of Nepal to a desert outside Cairo. It was a race against a ruthless enemy (the Nazis) before they could obtain an artifact of great power. Comparatively, Temple of Doom is more grounded in locale, travelling to fewer locations and less concerned with the chase for a sacred object than it does with showing our heroes digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole, and the result is a more intense and claustrophobic story. Personally, I've always enjoyed stories about evil cults or other groups operating just beneath the surface of respected society and how our heroes stumble upon them, and Temple of Doom qualifies as this type of story. 

Much has been made about how dark the movie is - human sacrifice, child abuse, slavery, torture, etc. - and the violent imagery of a heart ripped out of a chest, children whipped and in chains, people dipped into lava, and the demonic skull outfits and mannerisms of the Thuggees, but in a story about descending into an insidious underworld (like Hell), it's only logical that the tone is nightmarish, best represented when even our intrepid hero goes over to the dark side. When the narrative moves outside the caverns of the mines and temple into daylight for the final confrontation between Indy and the Thuggees, it's relief for both characters and audience.

That said, Temple of Doom contains many of the same of action-adventure elements as its predecessor: the booby-trap-filled halls and passageways, encounters with assorted creepy crawlies, a thrilling mine cart chase, fights with henchmen, assassination attempts, and a romance with the leading lady and rescuing her from danger time and time again. The movie also employs a sense of humor, mainly though the relationship between Indy and Short Round, who is treated by Jones less as a ward and more as partner, and the encounters the pampered, sheltered Willie has with the local customs, cuisine, and creatures. The film also has a funny callback to Raiders when Indy, confronted by two swordsmen, goes immediately for his gun only to discover it's missing. That's immediately followed by Indy chasing them off with a sword and his trademark whip only for him to immediately turn tail and run when dozens of more Thuggees arrive.

Some flaws are more apparent now that I'm older. There's some very politically incorrect ethnic stereotyping of both Indian culture and the Hindu religion that contains horribly inaccurate details and conceptions about both (I'm pretty sure chilled monkey brains are not a typical desert in India). However, the most cringe-worthy element of the movie is Willie Scott, who spends her entire screen time shrieking, complaining about things such as broken nails, and generally being a shrill pain in the ass who's only along for the ride to be the damsel in the distress. It's especially glaring since Raiders had Karen Allen as Marion, a tough, no-nonsense, more modern woman who didn't hesitate to fight, could out-drink any man, and actually contributed something to the plot. I can't figure out what Indy sees in Willy.

Ford, once again donning the fedora, is in fine form as the archaeologist seeking fortune and glory but who finds a more noble cause by film's end. Short Round makes for an interesting sidekick who doesn't feel like he was shoehorned in to give the film kiddie appeal; he is pretty useful, his banter with Jones is funny, and it's his love that saves Indy (that and a lit torch). Meanwhile, Puri gives an absolutely chilling and demonically fanatical performance as Mola Ram. With his shaved head, skull headdress, and deranged stare, he carries an unforgettable presence, even though it's over an hour into the movie before he turns up. 

In short, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a great entry to the series. It continues the spirit and adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark while going off enough in its own direction before sequels carried on the formula. This wouldn't be the place to start if you're new to Indiana Jones, but you shouldn't skip it either.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, you show me a different perspective, and that's why I'm always interested in your take on movies. But ... it's still my least favorite of the four. And, yes, this is my favorite film series of all time.