The only thing missing from the Indiana Jones franchise is a self-reflective film essay on the stories’ past glories and intractable failings. Otherwise, the series – now spanning 40 years – has proven to be as perfect as pulp cinema can be. It has jaw-dropping action, kinetic choreography (you can practically hear nose bones breaking ), tremendous attention to geography, and realistic, well-written romances: qualities that no other action enterprise, I argue – not even the enduring James Bond films – has attained. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny‘s titular hero is burnt out and frangible, but that is an area left ironically unexplored in a tale about an explorer. Sadly, director James Mangold‘s film falls victim to the action-oriented trappings Steven Spielberg and George Lucas mapped out during the early 1980s with Raiders of the Lost Ark.
What could have been the most inventive film in the series since Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom suffers from a determination to pander to all demographics, resulting in a film that’s neither a love letter to past (fortune and) glories, nor driven to make something new from Indiana Jones’ well-known story. Instead, Mangold creates a work that fails to deliver on its potential. We get an adventure film full of flash, spark, and crackle – but it’s laced with a lazy overload of special effects.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens unsurely and doesn’t quite know when to end, making it a frustratingly uneven feature. Over-dependent on its central lead, the ensemble cast (featuring Fleabag stalwart Phoebe Waller Bridge) are given little to contend with. Indeed, their roles seem to be only as highlights to the amazing stunt work and to comment on the larger-than-life exploit that pushes Dr. Jones out of retirement and back into the field of duty. Mangold offers a tangy twist on the formula by presenting Jones as a fish out of water in the life he finds himself living – bored with teaching his university classes and haunted by the collapse of his marriage.
What at first hints that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny might be a deeper film – a meditation on Dr. Jones’ mortality and an opportunity to correct mistakes made by his younger self – quickly diverges into something more conventional for the five-film series. He is informed that the Archimedes Dial, a device he has spent decades looking for, is within his grasp, but if he is to locate the object, it must be done before some nefarious baddies (former Nazis among them, of course) find it.
Here, we find the film’s ultimate irony, as it posits a man once thought to be progressive and innovative now drowning in a sea of countercultural thought and garments. Harrison Ford – who is age-CGI’d to appear as the younger Indiana Jones in 1969 – employs the shadings of his aged character to his advantage, offering one of his more interesting performances in recent years. One senses that Ford – if given creative control – might have preferred a film that was smaller in scale and focused on Jones as a more fragile warrior outclassed by the changing conventional norms of the new era. Instead, we get something noisier that prioritizes youth and is altogether more dependent on the work of his stunt doubles and questionable special effects. (Indeed, audiences looking for an escapade lit by CGI and burly, handsome stuntmen might better enjoy Andrè Muschietti’s recently released The Flash.)
Ford signed on for an adventure yarn, so he’s expected to wow audiences by re-treading the steps of a much younger man while pretending to be … a younger man. Ford is largely surrounded by younger actors (Phoebe Waller Bridge, Antonio Banderas, a menacing Mads Mikkelsen, to name just three). Perhaps as a nod for nostalgia, the filmmakers make the curious decision to rehire John Rhys Davies in his third Indiana Jones film as the garrulous Sallah, a Welsh actor in the role of an Egyptian. Mercifully, Ford – for the most part – holds what will probably be his last appearance in the Indiana Jones films – together. Despite its ludicrous ending, he sells the audience on the character’s personal inferno and reminds them that even the bravest among us will fall to the ravages of time.
The Indiana Jones presented in the 2023 film bears a closer resemblance to the aged hero in Mangold’s Logan, demonstrating a weary, albeit more thoughtful, scientist who spends his days reflecting on his life. Sadly, this is where the comparison ends with the superior X-Men movie because Mangold doesn’t have the heart to examine Indy’s demons with the same fervor – and success – as he did in Logan. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny highlights the character’s ego, revels in giddily directed car chases, and delivers, ironically, Roger Mooresque double-entendres.
There are certainly stretches in this patchy work to keep viewers happy – a foiled attempt to yield his whip will guarantee a laugh from those who were old enough to watch 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark – but by the time the film enters into its final third, reason is lost, throwing audiences into a finalè that blows logic and authenticity to smithereens. The zeppelin scene in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is more well-rounded than the nonsense depicted here.
Yet throughout it all, Ford is the glue that keeps Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny from descending into the annals of mediocrity (that may happen with time). Of all the roles he played – like Han Solo in Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back, Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and John Book in Peter Weir’s Witness – Indiana Jones is the one Ford seems most proud. It’s a shame that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny didn’t dig more deeply into this well-worn character.