The problem with the Indiana Jones franchise is one of its own making; the original three movies are just too damn good. They also came out in the ’80s, when most of us nerdy film critics were nerdy kids, so the nostalgia for early Indy is thick and unbeatable. There was never any hope that 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could measure up. Not in our hearts, anyway. And unfortunately, the same fate will likely befall Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Directed by James Mangold and featuring a spry, energetic Ford in his final go at the whip-wielding archaeologist, it’s a fast-paced and well-constructed adventure that balances big studio spectacle with measured action fitting for Indy’s reduced physicality.
Set in the volatile 1960s, a time of great cultural change, Indiana Jones is a man out of step with the rest of the world. Some of the best scenes of the film are of Indy, now a grumpy old man living in a cramped apartment alone, dealing with a divorce. He’s being forced into retirement at the school he teaches at, a place where the students sit bored by his lectures; a far cry from the adoring fan girls who drooled over his every word in earlier films. It’s heartbreaking but also fascinating. More of this would’ve been welcome. Mangold, who wasn’t afraid to give us a slower-paced Wolverine story with Logan, is theoretically the director who could’ve pulled such a thing off. Clearly, that was not the mandate here.
And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The action picks up quite nicely when Indy is roped into an adventure alongside his shady goddaughter Helena, played with all of the fast wit and snarky energy we expect from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. They are on the hunt for Archimedes’ Dial, and they are trying to stop a bunch of Nazis from getting it. Leading the baddies is Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), who Indy stopped from getting the Dial decades earlier at the end of WWII. But Voller, who is now a respected NASA scientist involved with the Apollo moon landing, hasn’t let it go. The Dial is a total Macguffin, albeit one that can apparently screw around with time itself, although that doesn’t really become important until the final act. The rest of the way, Indy and Helena might as well be looking for a lost shoebox or something. There’s something missing when the item in question lacks the recognizability of the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, or fails to immerse Indy in an altogether different culture like the mystical Indian stone in The Temple of Doom.
At 80-years-old, Harrison Ford is no spring chicken, and the action reflects that. It makes sense that the biggest, most rollicking sequence is in the beginning with a de-aged Indiana Jones battling Nazis aboard a speeding train. The younger Indy looks extremely good, with Lucasfilm vastly improving on the technology since their earliest efforts. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that young Indy still sounds like old Indy and it’s very distracting.
Understandably, Ford does considerably less later, with much of the action featuring Indy riding on things; speeding rickshaws or racing horses. Mangold keeps it light and a bit silly, it sortof has to be for it be even marginally believable that Indy can still fight his way out of the messes he gets into. It should be said that Ford is up for all of it, and he wasn’t lying when he said the script doesn’t wear out its welcome of “old man” jokes.
Waller-Bridge is a swaggering breath of fresh air as Helena, Indy’s goddaugher and the daughter of his friend, Basil Shaw, played by Toby Jones. Basil makes for a fun hanger-on during the initial action, with his obsession over the Dial becoming the film’s driving force. He is, in a way, what Indy could’ve become and still threatens to become. This obsession with finding these special treasurs of significance can be all-consuming. But for Helena, her goals are less altruistic. She’s in it for selfish profit, not the historical value. If it weren’t for Waller-Bridge’s performance, she’d be extremely hard to like, being quite comfortable letting her godfather get blamed for crimes he didn’t commit even as he tries to help her.
Other supporting roles are hit-and-miss. Seeing Sliders vet John Rhys-Davies return as Sallah is a treat and a nostalgic blast. But what the heck is Antonio Banderas doing in this as Indy’s ship captain pal, Renaldo? His role must’ve been seriously trimmed down, resembling a cameo more than anything else. Mikkelsen and Boyd Holbrook are also unimpressive as the villain, lacking any real menace or memorable moments to speak of. Better is Thomas Kretschmann, such a great utility actor, as Nazi leader Colonel Weber in the prelude action. And Shaunette Renee Wilson makes an impression as federal agent Mason. As a Black woman caught in the middle of Indy and Voller’s chase, she is a reminder of the cultural changes of the time, putting Black agents in positions of authority in dangerous cases. A huge misfire is the inclusion of a kid sidekick, Teddy Kumar (Ethan Isidore), who is definitely no Short-Round. For one thing, he’s too old for anything he does to be considered cute, but he seems to be there because someone mandated that he be there to reach a younger audience.
With this being Indiana Jones’ final adventure, the film goes through some wild shifts in tone to try and answer all lingering questions. We get some finality to a major dangling thread from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, adding a harsh dose of reality to what is generally a light-hearted affair. The final sequence lurches into ridiculousness and the kind of screwy timeline stuff you wish had been left behind with Marvel and DC. One good thing does emerge from the big finale, which finds Teddy piloting an airplane in a…well, unlikely warzone. It’s the chance to see how Indiana Jones reacts when truly a part of history, not just an observer and protector of it. After all of these films, to finally get that moment is rewarding
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is an imperfect but enjoyable swansong for Harrison Ford’s beloved hero. It often plays like a “greatest hits” version of the previous movies, recalling certain setpieces and relationships with a slight twist. And you know what? That’s okay. While the big swings of the original movies are gone, Indiana Jones is deserving of this last chance to bask in old glories, to recall past adventures, to be nostalgic. If this franchise is being put on the shelf for good, this film doesn’t hurt its well-deserved status as a national treasure.
Disney releases Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny into theaters on June 30th.