Written by Victor DeBonis
It brings me joy to inform you that “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is a rather good entry in the franchise. Upon reflection, this installment in the series probably caused some uncertainty with what to expect. With Spielberg stepping away from the director’s chair for the first time in the series and James Mangold filling in his seat, there was some debate about which path the movie would take and whether it would be one best representing the renowned hero with his hat and whip.
This series and character has numerous fans, and I’ve certainly been one of them for as long as I can remember. The colorfully illustrated artwork from the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” cover of my parents’ VHS tape remains in my memory. It was one of the first VHS tapes that my folks owned, and, even before I placed the tape in the VCR, I had a feeling about something different and epic awaiting me. Decades down the road, “Raiders” and “The Last Crusade” are among two of my favorite action movies of all time, and so much about these films brings a smile to my face. Spielberg’s fantastical direction, along with the bold performances of the cast and the marvelously staged action and imagination, work to create wondrous and optimistic entertainment that never ceases to amaze.
While I liked “Temple of Doom” just fine, I never cared much for “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The over-reliance on off-putting CGI, ill-fitting awkwardness, and faulty writing in the film led to a somewhat baffling disappointment. Fortunately, this misstep did nothing to eradicate my love for this franchise. Anyone who doesn’t believe me can know that I suited up as Indy for at least two Halloweens with pride, and I still carry a leather, brown hat that I admittedly don’t wear often but still keep in great part because it almost makes me feel like the rugged hero.
Mangold certainly delivers with his vision, and part of why this movie works as well as it does comes from his sharp eye and crafting great shots and action sequences. Whenever there’s a chase in the streets or someone moving inside a ship to give clues to something, scenes are staged to great effect with solid blocking and with a wide enough frame to embrace the details of the environment. Unpredictable areas are illuminated with a combination of strong shadows and fierce lighting to provide a rich, somewhat gritty atmosphere to them.
For years, Mangold has always held my respect, partly from directing a number of fantastic films from different genres. In addition to doing a great biopic in the form of “Walk the Line” he also directed the criminally underappreciated 1998 crime drama “Cop Land” and the superb Western remake “3:10 to Yuma.” Of course, he also directed my favorite X-Men film “Logan” a movie that went beyond being a predictable comic-book film and told an unflinchingly aggressive and bittersweet story about an aging hero having to face the harsh reality that the best of his times may truly have come to their end. Mangold is a versatile filmmaker who has made many types of movies with an overall great track record, and so, it didn’t surprise me too much when I saw how well he filmed and shot this latest entry in this action franchise.
Something I also notice and appreciate is the greater number of silent moments in this movie than what we typically see from previous Indy films. Some moments happen in which there is no music, and the camera will slowly move around or hold for a few seconds with our main characters as they either try to absorb their surroundings or further explore a daunting cave or other site. This helps add to the experience because it allows the storytelling and mystery to further shine from seeing our heroes’ reactions to specific scenarios and wonder what might happen at any given moment.
On top of that, the upbeat tone and child-like sense of adventure and wonder runs strongly as always, but, this time around, there is also a mild reflection about a hero feeling worn from where he is at this point in his story. Harrison Ford once again plays Indiana to magnificent effect. He handles his chases and other moments of action with intensity and impressive drive, and he continues to excel in the art of tossing the snarkiest insults to Nazis (along with some hard punches). Ford is charismatic, gruff and playfully sarcastic, and he maintains the same heroic charm admired by many.
However, the movie also makes note of the reality that he is older, and there are moments in the movie in which he will pause upon an old photograph or wistfully discuss something that has left him feeling unsatisfied with how his present place in life is. “Dial of Destiny” never dives too deep into his psychological hurt as, say, “Batman Begins” did for its hero. Yet, there are a few scenes in which Ford voices what has left him feeling weary from his present time, and the pain is fairly evident. A few of these moments don’t even have dialogue, and the tired expression on his face solidly sums up what he’s experiencing. Between “Logan” and this movie, Mangold has shown a talent at telling tales of renowned heroes dealing with the unpredictable pain of life in its later years and exploring their attempts to see their way through their tougher times, whether it’s in a positive or ill-advised way. Someone can go through a number of adventures in their own lifetime, but this doesn’t necessarily eradicate the harsher experiences accompanied along the way. When this movie chooses to reflect on this reality a bit, it leads to a slightly more mature Jones film than what we’re used to seeing, and I mean that in a very positive way.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge does superb work as well as Indy’s goddaughter, Helena. She moves through her scenes with gusto and playful enthusiasm, and she wears the confident smile of someone who loves being several steps ahead of her adversaries. Helena is a bright and witty adventurer who savors the act of solving puzzles and finding her way through unpredictable territory. Needless to say, Waller-Bridge wonderfully carries a similar spirit to Indy of venturing through the world, and she is great at practically playing a daughter in the sense of someone who has a youthful optimism and is willing to push Indy to learn more about himself and adventure again in spite of the state of his present situation. As for Mads Mikkelsen, he is terrific as the villain of the movie. Mikkelsen wears the menacing glare of someone who holds nothing short of disgust for those he considers beneath him. It is rare for him to crack a smile, but his glee for his devious plan for the Dial is evident as he slowly speaks with a quiet yet strong hope for accomplishing his sinister goals.
John Williams composes the music as he did for the previous films, and the power of his work can’t be overstated. His melodies and instrumental compositions echo the right sense of mystery, thrills, or danger for the scenes, and they echo the adventurous spirit of this character and this story in splendid form. There’s a reason Williams is regarded as a legend for what he does, and he doesn’t disappoint.
The action scenes in this movie are great to watch. Plenty of creativity is used with the manner in which they’re set up and led through their crafty turns and grand scale, and the camera follows every chase and fight with a steady eye. One specific chase scene is edited at a quick pace but never loses its sense of momentum or excitement, partly due to the path in which the vehicle finds its way through its chaotic environment. These chases know how to utilize the unusual presence of their environments, and watching Indy and Helena perform their stunts and moves through these sequences brought a grin to my face from the joy and understanding of the work dedicated to staging this action.
Sometimes, the film can stumble, and one reason traces from not much time spent with the side characters. Previous films took the time to settle with the people whom Indy converses with on his expeditions, and they lent their appropriate character and charm to the adventure, especially with certain moments. Seeing Antonio Banderas and John Rhys-Davies again is neat, but the plot never lingers enough with them to allow the audience to recognize who they are beyond their roles on Indy’s journey. There’s a kid character who is acted fine with a definite drive from his personality, but there wasn’t much to distinguish him from other kid characters who join the main heroes on their quests.
People have mentioned the CG de-aging of Indy in the first section of the movie. While a few shots with a younger Ford could be distracting, I viewed the appearance as fairly convincing. My main issue with this version of Ford is his voice. His voice sounds closer to the recent age of Ford instead of someone in younger years, and it’s somewhat distracting.
Perhaps, my biggest issue comes from the last act of the movie. As always, I won’t dive into specific details. All I’ll say is this: While parts of it are fun and emotionally fitting in their own ways, there are other parts that needed more development.
All in all, though, this is a good Indy adventure all around. “Dial of Destiny” has exceptional action and great characters brought to life by some talented performers. The movie also does well in occasionally pausing to reflect upon the idea of time and the importance of doing what is best in such a limited space. Some of the technical parts and parts of the story don’t always match their mark, but I never find myself gaping in disbelief. This movie is certainly better than “Crystal Skull” particularly as a concluding movie (if this is truly the last time that we see this character), and the charm and spirit of this film felt natural and strong as it should.
This was definitely a good time.