That Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens during WWII in a besieged Nazi castle where the actors who played Baron Strucker, Arnim Zola and Kaecilius in Marvel movies are scrapping with a CG-deaged Harrison Ford – soon to be Red Hulk – over a sacred item once sought in a James Herbert novel is kind of a problem. Surely, this franchise – which I always thought should have stuck with the ‘Raiders of the …’ title format rather than privilege the hero the way that other Lucasfilms saga didn’t call its second instalment Luke Skywalker Gets Struck Back at by the Empire – ought not to get in a muddle with the Marvel movies? As the first IJ not directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s in a pickle about continuing the one-damn-thing-after-another pacing and 1940s serial style plot-bytes of the earlier films while letting James Mangold – who presumably scored the gig on the strength of Logan rather than The Wolverine – express some interest in the woes of an ageing action hero.
When the story picks up in 1969, Harrison Ford’s Professor Jones – who seems to be fifteen to twenty years younger than the actor – is a cranky, bereaved old guy. He complains that his hippie neighbours wake him up with a blast of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, is about to retire from teaching kids who aren’t listening to his lectures about ancient pottery because they’re more excited about a tickertape parade for the returning Apollo astronauts, and has been served divorce papers by his wife Marion (Karen Allen, but you have to wait for her). If you weren’t a fan of Shia LaBoeuf as Indy II in Crystal Skull, there’s good news and bad news – he’s not in this one but you’re expected to see that as a tragic loss on a par with Bruce Wayne’s parents getting gunned down. It’s a minor theme here, but interesting that Ford’s Jones is repeatedly upset when old colleagues and friends are killed … while everyone else in the film has no time for mourning or caring and just wants to get on with the chases, fights and general daredevilry.
Ford gives a nuanced, credible performance as a ground-down old git who isn’t really comfortable in that hat anymore – but as with his reprises of Han Solo and Deckard, it’s a moot point as to whether anyone wanted him back this way. In contrast, Indy’s goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a posh Brit rogue, conwoman and chancer who repeatedly leaves people to die and only grows a tiny smidgen of conscience when it’s possible two thousand years of history will be rewritten and she’ll have to learn it all again … Waller-Bridge is a smart, snide presence but Helena is the least likeable leading lady in an Indiana Jones film ever (including Alison Doody, who played an actual Nazi). We also get stuck with hours and hours of footage with Teddy (Ethann Bergua-Isidore), Helena’s thieving urchin sidekick. It was a terrible idea to have a proto-Goonie in an IJ film in the first place (cf: Short Round) and I’ve always hated that it’s-funny-he-steals-your-watch stuff as much as the car-chase-which-wrecks-the-livelihoods-of-dozens-of-market-stall-holders gambit (also used here).
Sometimes, as was observable in having John Hurt play Professor Calculus in all but name in Crystal Skull, the Spielberg franchise this most reminds you of is the abortive Tintin – a spell of diving for half a macguffin in a shipwreck full of eels (underwater snakes) and a lot of running around North Africa and Sicily have a very Hergé feel (with Ford, basically, as Captain Haddock). Again, a progenitor franchise is overshadowed by its own scrappier successors – the historical footnotes feel very National Treasure, there’s an actual scene involving tomb raiding and (as noted above) this is the third Harrison Ford-revisits-an-earlier-role movie (we look forward to Force 11 From Navarone, Return to Hanover St, Witness II, Still More American Graffiti, The Fugitive Flees Again, etc). Dial of Destiny remembers to look to 1940s serial plotting in its stringing-together of challenges … three separate, interlinked objects have to be recovered and assembled before the big climax, which takes things in a new direction I found refreshing but suddenly Helena changes character and starts arguing against all the interesting things that could happen (it briefly intersects with Kosei Sato’s classic Sengoku jietai/GI Samurai). Given the predominance of ‘to be continued’ movies this season, it’s almost a shame this doesn’t end with Indy plunging to certain death off a cliff – only for a further sequel next year to cheat and show him wrapping his whip around a bush on a hitherto-unnoticed ledge.
As with several earlier films, including Raiders, it works in a joke at the expense of heroic efforts. If Indy gave Nazi scientist Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) both parts of Archimedes’ dial and the instruction tablet in the first scene, it wouldn’t change the outcome of the story. Indeed, when fate/God/George Lucas starts to undo the Nazi schemes Indy points out the schoolboy error they’ve made rather than keep schtumm and let them get sucked into what looks for all the world like a giant sphincter in the clouds and dumped into the dustbin of history.