We start in Shanghai in 1935, making this a prequel to Raiders. After a musical number (of all things) to open the credits with, Indy is in a nightclub to meet a gangster to make a transaction, a diamond for the remains of his ancestor. The gangster, being a gangster, double crosses Indy and poisons him. A fight breaks out over the antidote, Indy escapes and flies off in a plane owned by the gangster. While Indy and his companions sleep, the pilots bail out and our hero crash lands in India, where the real plot begins.
The real plot is that a modest village they come across is plagued by horrible things. The land is blighted, and a cult has taken away all of their children in the night, and all this because the cult stole their sacred stone. Indy is dragged into the quest to recover the stone because A) it might be one of the fabled Sankara stones and worth a LOT of money, and B) the god Siva himself seems to be nudging him to do this. So its off to Pankot Palace where the stone is, because there lies fortune and glory. And a reborn Thuggee Cult that worships the dread goddess Kali.
The visuals by director Steven Spielberg and director of photography Douglas Slocombe continue the trend of “beautiful grittiness.” Temple is actually more gritty than Raiders even, and was considerably darker thematically, so much so that it helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Darker how? Well, there’s lots and lots of bugs in this, a gross-out dinner scene that ends with “chilled monkey brains” served in monkey skulls, child slavery, and, oh yeah, a guy gets sacrificed to Kali by being locked in a cage, having his heart removed from his chest and not killing him, then being lowered into a pit of lava that kills him and causes the heart to burst into flames. I guess you could call that dark. Its pretty awesome too as a villain-establishing moment.
That said, its not all blood sacrifices and deathtraps, and Temple features a hell of a lot of lighthearted scenes as well. The intro musical is a glitzy, glamorous and upbeat rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” that sets the mood for the rest of the movie. From the Shanghai sets to the jungles of India (well, Sri Lanka), there’s a great sense of anything can happen. Indy has not one but TWO comic relief characters following him along, and the action scenes ooze just as much ADVENTURE! as the rest of the series. For set-pieces, this one’s got a raft used as a parachute (not advisable to try in real life), a moving ceiling deathtrap, a bareknuckle brawl with a big Thuggee on a conveyor belt, and the famous mine car chase. The Mine Car chase is a literal roller-coaster made even more impressive when you realize most of it was done with miniatures instead of real people. I’m sure the heavy shadows and lighting helped cover that up effectively, but for years I had no idea there was so much miniature work done in that scene. Now that’s awesome effects work.
Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones: Harrison Ford is pretty much our only returning cast member (not counting the stuntmen). Since this is set before Raiders, this is a slightly different Indy. Yes he’s still the daring, charming, highly intelligent adventuring archeologist, but he’s considerably more mercenary in this. After another fantastic character introduction (walking in wearing a tuxedo and speaking Chinese to Lao Che and making sure he gets his payment while oozing cool), we find out he’s bargaining a rare antiquity (the ashes) for another (the big diamond). Then when he gets to India, he really has no interest in helping the village. He just wants to get to Dehli and go home. It takes an escaped slave child with a scrap of ancient scroll identifying the lost rock as a Sankara Stone to get him in gear. And even then he’s not doing it for the village, but for the money. It takes even more events to actually propel him into actual altruism.
Wilhelmina “Willie” Scott: Kate Capshaw plays the love interest this time and, well, Willie is Willie. She’s a very “girly-girl” who is completely unsuited to any kind of ADVENTURE! She complains constantly, hinders Indy’s progress more than helps, and is basically an attractive comic relief sidekick that Indy makes out with occasionally. She’s not completely useless (I counted two times where she does something that legitimately helps Indy. See if you can find them!), and the scene at Pankot Palace where Indy and Willie are flirting then arguing then pouting in their rooms waiting for the other to cave in and come to bed is actually good comedy (and feels like it was lifted out of some older 60s comedies).
Short Round: Ke Huy Quan plays Indy’s OTHER comic relief sidekick. He’s considerably more resourceful and helpful than Willie. He’s also been with Indy for a little while. I know some people hate Short Round, but I never found him annoying. Hell, he’s got some of the best, most memorable lines in the movie.
Chattar Lal: Rushan Seth plays the Prime Minister of Pankot. A Western-educated, bespectacled man, at first glance he seems like a reasonable regent for a child Maharaja. But of course he’s not. He’s a high-ranking member of the Thuggee cult, but aside from a few later scenes, he fades to the background when the real villain arrives.
Mola Ram: Amrish Puri plays the real leader of the Thuggee. Mola Ram is one hell of a crazy villain. He wants to conquer the world in the name of Kali, and is trying to collect all of the Sankara stones to do so. He’s got an impressive hat, is physically imposing, has an army of fanatics backing him up, and manages to elevate himself from a two-dimensional villain through sheer force of hamminess. He is, essentially, a James Bond villain (complete with molten lava pit headquarters).
Story by George Lucas, Screenplay by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz. Darker mood notwithstanding, Temple of Doom continues the breakneck pacing and excellent dialogue that Raiders started. The intro sequence even plays into the direct sequence of events this time, unlike in Raiders where it serves as an independent episode that only introduces the hero and villain. Character development is also well done. Indy’s an archetype, drawn in broad strokes to allow a wide audience to imagine themselves in his shoes having crazy adventures, but here (and a little less so in Raiders) he DOES have character development. He starts out as a slightly amoral treasure hunter, and after going through a metaphorical Hell (seriously, it would suck to go through everything that happens at Pankot), he emerges as a much better person. And the way its done is fairly subtle. By the end of the conveyor belt fight, Indy is actually trying to help his opponent (a particularly brutal cultist) from not dying a horrible death. Of course it happens anyway, the guy’s a miniboss after all, but that Indy even tries to help the guy stands out as being more benevolent than he was at the beginning. The darkness of the mood is brightened by two comic-relief characters, and the villain is just as memorable as any other in the series.
But the voodoo doll thing? I can’t think of any way to defend a Haitian/West African thing being worked into the Indian subcontinent. That’s just kind of dumb. At least its barely in the movie.
Original Music by John Williams again, and again it is top notch. In addition to bringing back The Raiders March, new themes are added, the most noticeable ones being Short Round’s theme, which is suitably Asian-influenced, and the harsh, percussive theme of the mines. The soundtrack is a fine addition to the series. Also, the musical number with “Anything Goes” sung in Chinese is catchy as hell.
Temple of Doom is a very good movie though. Its got great action, memorable characters, and is a worthy continuation/backstory for Indiana Jones himself. More than that, the dialogue is some of the most quotable of the series, and the movie as a whole is a lot of fun. And that’s what this series is about. Fun. Okay, fine. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not as perfect of a movie as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but then again, few movies are, even the other Indiana Jones films. It may be the runt of the Indiana Jones Trilogy, but that’s like saying it’s the smallest of three grown wolverines: it can still maul larger game with frightening power.
Yeah, it’s a weird analogy, but I stand by it.