Having looked at the series-launching and genre-defining Raiders of the Lost Ark,yesterday, it is now time to “go a little darker” and consider 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which re-united Steven Spielberg as director, Harrison Ford as the man with the hat and George Lucas once again coming up with the story.

*****

The year is 1935, one year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones has to bail out of a pilot-less, fuel-less aeroplane, accompanied by a nightclub singer (Willie Scott) and a young Chinese boy (Short-Round). They find themselves in a remote Indian village, from which all of the children have been snatched, along with a Sankara stone, believed by the villagers to be vital to their survival. The children and stone are believed to have been taken to the nearby Pankot Palace where the ancient Thuggee cult is believed to be arising once again. Indy, Willie and Short-Round agree to travel to the palace, to see whether they can find the children and return them and the sacred stone to their rightful place.

***

In many ways intentionally mirroring Lucas’s approach with his Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, Spielberg wanted to shift to a slightly darker tone for his next Indy adventure. While Temple of Doom is nowhere near as accomplished a film as Raiders, or as successful a sequel as The Empire Strikes Back, it certainly succeeded in achieving a darker tone. Munching on chilled monkey brains, eyeball soup, human sacrifice, child abduction and slavery, removing a man’s heart while he is still alive, whipping child labourers. It is indeed a heady mix of adult themes, seemingly starkly at odds with the romping tone of its action-adventure predecessor.

The role the film (along with Gremlins) played in the birth of the PG-13 certificate in the US is well documented and need not be dwelt on here, what is noteworthy however is the tone of regret that Spielberg expressed in later years, sensing that within the parameters of the type of film series Indiana Jones represents, he had gone too far. Certainly the assorted themes listed above represent a real jolt after the overall tone of Raiders. For sure, the pit of snakes and face-melting Nazis in the first film are hardly light-hearted, however the overall feel of the first film was more on the jaunty side and Temple of Doom tries but ultimately struggles to inject much in the way of humour or levity amidst the gloomier elements. This is in part down to the script, which while perfectly serviceable in moving Indy along through his adventure, lacks the snappy one-liners and enduring memorability of the best entries in the franchise.

What the film emphatically does not lack, however, is expert pacing and peerless set pieces. We find Indy in the opening scene in Shanghai, dressed in a tux (surely yet more of Spielberg’s “Indy as James Bond” wish fulfillment) and before you can blink he’s been drugged, he’s chasing the antidote, making an escape, getting embroiled in a car chase, bailing out of an aeroplane in an inflatable dinghy and negotiating whitewater rapids. As with Raiders, cumbersome exposition is kept to a minimum and much of it is done on the hoof, with Indy, Willie and Short-Round quickly making their way into the bowels of Pankot palace and confronting the re-emerging Thuggee cult.

On the subject of set-pieces, the mine cart chase sequence and the finale on the rope bridge are as well-crafted and thrilling as anything the series has produced, unfortunately a few good set pieces to do not make an excellent, or even a well-crafted film. There is a regrettably disjointed feel to a lot of it, with many sequences not feeling like part of the narrative flow in the organic way achieved with Raiders (and indeed Last Crusade a few years later). It should be borne in mind in this context that the mine cart sequence was originally intended for the finale of Raiders but in the end found its way into Temple of Doom. Perhaps the fact that the set-piece pre-dated the story and script contributed to the disjointedness?

Ultimately, Harrison Ford remains believably world-weary but principled and adventurous as Indy, with Short-Round an excellent and amusing side-kick. Kate Capshaw proved herself thoroughly game as Willie, suffering all manner of creepy-crawlies and having to be taught how to scream her guts out for the many occasions on which it was called for. As noted above, the script falls a little short, but the MacGuffin is an excellent one, shifting the action away from Biblical artifacts, but maintaining good consistency with the series with occult themes, booby traps and perilous predicaments from which Indy must extricate himself, armed with only his wits and a bullwhip. In the vein of Superman 3 and Spider-man 3, Harrison Ford gets to play an evil version of Indy, but it does not last long enough to carry much weight.

Were it not for the series entries either side of it, Temple of Doom would most likely be better regarded. As noted, it contains some sensational set pieces and the shift to a darker tone is only notable by its contrast to what preceded and followed it. Being a worse film than Raiders of the Lost Ark is no bad thing, since most films are and it still stands head and shoulders above Romancing the Stone, National Treasure, King Solomon’s Mines and a myriad of other pale imitators.

It is far from Spielberg’s best work, but as many have noted, Spielberg a little off his game is still better than the best that most other directors could ever aspire to. It remains a very good, though not excellent film and though some do still hail it as the best of the series, if you own them all it is likely to remain the least watched of the collection.

Check back tomorrow for the family affair that is The Last Crusade.

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Dave has been writing for HeyUGuys since mid-2010 and has found them to be the most intelligent, friendly, erudite and insightful bunch of film fans you could hope to work with. He's gone from ham-fisted attempts at writing the news to interviewing Lawrence Bender, Renny Harlin and Julian Glover, to writing articles about things he loves that people have actually read. He has fairly broad tastes as far as films are concerned, though given the choice he's likely to go for Con Air over Battleship Potemkin most days. He's pretty sure that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most overrated mess in cinematic history.