May 2024

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

CAST: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth, Philip Stone


Just as the near-perfect action-adventure of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark virtually guaranteed that more installments in what became the Indiana Jones series would follow, it was also perhaps inevitable that they would fall short of its high water mark. Temple of Doom is by no means a bad movie, and parts of it are as wildly entertaining as the best Raiders had to offer, but it lacks the perfect pacing and tonal balance of the first installment, and suffers by comparison.

We open in a bustling nightclub in 1935 Shanghai (arbitrarily making Temple technically a prequel to Raiders, although both are basically stand-alone episodes, so this doesn’t really matter), where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is meeting with a local crime lord to be paid for a precious diamond. As they have a way of doing with Indy, things go south when the gangster doesn’t feel like paying for what he wants, and soon a full melee erupts, with Indy making a typical daredevil’s escape with the help of his pint-sized sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), and a frazzled nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw, soon to be Mrs. Steven Spielberg) unwillingly dragged along for the ride. After a series of near death experiences, the unlikely and dysfunctional trio wind up in an impoverished village in India, where the locals believe they have been sent by the gods to recover their lost sacred stone, which they claim was stolen by forces from Pankot Palace. Smelling fortune and glory, Indy agrees to travel to Pankot Palace, where he eventually discovers a hidden Thuggee cult which has enslaved the children of the village, practices ritual human sacrifices, and is collecting the sacred Sankara stones, believing their combined power will grant them world domination.

Part of the problem with Temple of Doom is its uneven tone. Raiders of the Lost Ark successfully walked a tightrope between never taking itself too seriously without being overly jokey. Temple isn’t as successful. The temple of doom plotline involving the Thuggee ritual human sacrifices is dark and creepy, going so far as to feature the sinister Thuggee priest Mola Ram (late Indian actor Amrish Puri) pulling out a victim’s heart and then lowering the man into a pit of fire (as the still-beating heart bursts into flames in his hand). In fact, this scene was a driving force behind the creation of the PG-13 rating as a middle ground between PG and R. As if afraid of injecting too much darkness, Spielberg and Lucas overcompensate by making Willie and Short Round as much figures of comic relief as they are the love interest and sidekick. Willie’s shrill screaming and running around blundering into trouble from which she has to be rescued gets tiresome and tedious long before the end; she’s certainly no Marion Ravenwood. And Short Round ’s inclusion smacks a little too much of casting a feisty little boy for cuteness factor. Willie and Short Round are the weakest companions Indiana has had thus far in the series, and they’re definite downgrades from the likes of Karen Allen’s Marion, John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah, and Denholm Elliott’s Brody.  Speaking of Sallah and Brody, their absences from Temple of Doom are felt, making it clear that these two, who played fairly small supporting roles in Raiders of the Lost Ark, were more important than they might have seemed at first glance (their return was a distinct plus for The Last Crusade ; unfortunately, as of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull they will be absent again).

Temple of Doom has its high points. Its beginning in a Shanghai nightclub (named Club Obi Wan in a Lucas in-joke) and the much later thrilling ride through a mine shaft are two of the most wildly entertaining action sequences in the entire series. In fact, the famous mine shaft chase might well be the most ambitious and impressive action sequence Indiana Jones has to offer, and can be stacked up with the best Lucas and Spielberg have ever brought to the series.  Unfortunately, Temple of Doom’s middle section gets a little tedious, with Indy, Willie, and Short Round making their way through the jungle and Indy and Willie bickering. It’s not that Temple of Doom is boring, but it has distinctly more down time than its predecessor. Other than the two extended action sequences at the beginning and the end, and one middle scene involving bugs and spikes, there’s not an abundance of action in the mid-section. The series of cliffhanger sequences from Raiders, if not eliminated, has been substantially toned down.

Harrison Ford is as perfectly at home in the role of Indiana Jones as he was in Raiders of the Lost Ark, even if this one doesn’t always give him material of equal quality. As before, Ford performed many of his own stunts, seriously hurting his back during filming and having to take several weeks to recover while stuntman and longtime double Vic Armstrong filled in for some of the action sequences. Everything that was said of Ford in my review of the first film is equally true of the second. Actually, it could be argued that Indy has a fuller character arc here than in Raiders, as he starts out motivated by fortune and glory but ends up a heroic savior. Kate Capshaw, while she obviously made an impression on Spielberg, is more annoying than likable. She’s certainly a step down from Karen Allen among Indy’s love interests, and her comedic damsel in distress routine gets tedious quickly. The biggest impression in the supporting cast is by Amrish Puri, whose Mola Ram is a chilling villain, ranking right up with and maybe even surpassing Ronald Lacey’s Toht as easily the most truly menacing in the series, although he doesn’t appear until a little over the halfway point. Attentive viewers might notice a brief, random appearance by Dan Aykroyd early in the film (he’s never really shown close-up and speaks with a British accent, so be attentive).

Temple of Doom disappointed many viewers at the time, and it’s easy to see why; it’s sometimes tedious, featuring an irritating love interest far inferior to her predecessor, no characters, locations, or plot elements from the previous film besides Indy himself, and tonally schizophrenic, with comedic scenes that try too hard and dark scenes that go way-over-the-top, but the years have been somewhat kinder to the film. After all, it still features Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones front and center, and if that’s not enough to surmount all of its flaws, it’s a major ace in the hole. While the same cannot always be said of what comes in between, the beginning and climax of Temple of Doom is fully worthy of the name Indiana Jones, and the film still entertains, even if it does not do so with the unerring skill and balance of its predecessor.