“Those days have come and gone.”
In preparation for going into Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, I couldn’t help but reflect on the harsh reception the last outing to feature the iconic character got. Fifteen years after its release, I freely admit that I still like 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even though it vastly pales in comparison to the golden trio of movies made by star Harrison Ford and director Steven Spielberg back in the 1980s. What I remember most about the film was just how unprepared I was for the amount of disdain and, for lack of a better word, resentment, that that movie received. From the fridge gag to the casting of Shia LaBeouf to the last set piece, the knives were certainly out for that movie. In the aftermath of Crystal Skull, most fans were even questioning if another sequel was even possible, let alone, desired. Coming out of Dial of Destiny, I’m not sure if the response this time around will be worse than Crystal Skull, or if it might actually cause the detractors to give Indy’s 2008 venture a reappraisal. For my money, Dial of Destiny only made me like the previously much-maligned sequel a little bit more.
The latest Indy tale begins in 1940s Europe at the end of WWII when Indiana Jones (Ford) comes into contact with one-half of the legendary time dial created by Archimedes. Just as he and his fellow adventurer Basil (Toby Jones) are about to escape, they notice Nazi professor Voller (Mads Mikkelsen escaping with the other half. Flash forward 25 years; it’s 1969, Indy is divorced, living alone, and being forced into retirement. When a surprise visit from his goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) leads him to unearth the mysterious dial, it begins an adventure that makes Indy face both his future and his past.
Dial of Destiny is not going to do much to help the long movie argument that’s currently consuming the film world to degrees of sheer ridiculousness. As someone in the pro-two-hour plus camp, even I was finding it hard to see any real justification in the movie’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Dial of Destiny is a movie littered with set pieces; each one containing the right kind of rhythm and pace to satisfy the majority of the audience. The problem isn’t that the movie has far too many action-driven sequences for its own good, it’s that a lot of them have no reason to exist. Most of these moments, such as a high-speed chase in a parade, or a gunfight in a bar in Egypt are good in concept and do their best to showcase the kind of Indy audiences have grown up with. But none of them add anything substantial to the story they are supposed to be servicing. This leaves Dial of Destiny stunted, at least where its electric charge is concerned, making it feel like a movie that’s always on the verge of getting started. Even in the brief moments when the movie does start to move forward in the back half, it can’t ever decide where it’s going. It’s not altogether the fault of the action, however. There’s plenty of plot to be found in the movie, including a lengthy prologue and the odd flashback or two. But apart from some small scattered character moments, Dial of Destiny all but strands its beloved character with a narrative that might appear to be convoluted before you discover that it’s actually pretty lifeless.
To be fair, director James Mangold and his team of screenwriters (including the great David Koepp) do try to give their script some storytelling heft. There’s a tense moment between Voller and an African American hotel worker that, although stark, gives the movie some credibility. Those and other similar moments are admirable comments on the movie’s setting and the fact that the villains aren’t there to play around in the traditional Hollywood way. Still, it’s hard to ignore that such touches are squarely at odds with the kind of family-friendly adventure vibes Dial of Destiny (and its predecessor, for that matter) is so clearly embracing now. The movie does somewhat better when it focuses on Indy’s personal conflicts. This may be the first time we see Indy have to face his own mortality in a human way not dependent on any kind of death-defying escapade. This time around, we see Indy get emotional as he questions what his life has been about, and what place he occupies in the world now that he’s getting older. This introspective side to the movie is yet another one which will surely divide audiences, none of whom (I’m guessing) signed on to see Indy tackle such personal issues. It’s a move that deserves some applause, for sure, but even this area of the film should feel more alive than it does.
Ford knows what he’s doing with what is arguably the second most iconic character of his career. The nuances and the internal beats he gives Indy are just as well-crafted as his dry humor or anything having to do with his always-impressive physicality. The actor seems to enjoy playing Indy now more than ever and the way he carries the film with steadiness and a vulnerability makes his performance the film’s highlight without question.
Of course, this means the rest of the cast gets left behind, fighting for meager scraps of screen time. Jones is a welcome presence, as are Antonio Banderas and John Rhys-Davies in glorified cameos. While Mikkelson and Ethann Isidore are on hand for villain and cute kid duties, respectively, Boyd Holbrook’s henchman is so irrelevant, he scarcely has enough dialogue even though he’s in virtually 70% of the movie. It’s Waller-Bridge who is the only one given anything to do besides Ford and does it well. Even if Helena is just a bunch of tired tropes and traits strung together to form the guise of a character, the actress’s natural energy and fire ensure that she’s always interesting to watch. Seeing her and Ford share screen time is a true pleasure. The two have movie chemistry for days, so much so that you almost wish the adventures of Indy and Helena would continue beyond Dial of Destiny.
Admittedly, the film’s final act is an undeniable showstopper featuring spectacular action scenes and moments that do have the ability to push an audience member to the edge of their seat. It’s a game changer that did have me invested but still failed to make up for the lackluster quality of what came before. I don’t know if the previous two hours (as largely laborious as they were) had prepped us enough for what was to come, but someone must have figured it was time for the proverbial “go big or go home” mentality that seems to be more prevalent than ever in today’s blockbusters. I won’t give any specifics about the ending away. I’m sure film social media will be happy to do that for me. However, I will say that the level of preposterousness seen in the overblown finale will be enough to make some long for the flying saucer from Crystal Skull. Suffice it to say it’s not the ending the movie deserved, but then again, this isn’t the movie Indy himself deserved. Ultimately watching Indiana Jones in Dial of Destiny is a bit like reuniting with an old friend you’re glad to see after so long even if the two of you don’t have much to say to each other.