Once again, everything. I watched it last night, and I have come up with this formula; Temple of Doom is inversely as good as how long ago you saw either other Indiana Jones movie. For us math-challenged types, that means never see this movie back to back, or a day after, or a week after Raiders of the Lost Ark. I became a Temple of Doom Apologist shortly after the The Indiana Jones Trilogy DVD Box Set came out. I watched all three of them after not seeing them for ages. I’ve seen them all in the theater, from age 10 onward, but sporadically since; I think we wore out our VHS copy of Raiders by slow-moing the end where the Nazis melt and explode.
I remember watching Temple of Doom and liking it a lot more than I thought. I must have watched it at least a week after Raiders, because this time with only a day since I saw that classic, the first sequel really falls short. It’s been the red-headed stepchild of the Indy movies, and deservedly so. From the opening frame, we’re seeing something very different from the movie we loved just a few years before.
The familiar Paramount logo fades and reveals a bronze relief of a mountain, on a gong being rung. We pan to the mouth of a dragon, glowing red and shrouded in mist… something emerges, and it’s… Kate Capshaw. PRANKED! Unfortunately the entire movie goes on like this. We get a long Busby Berkeley opening act as she dances and sings “Anything Goes” in half Chinese, in a Shanghai nightclub. When we first meet Indy, he’s not in his familiar crusty gear or even in a modest professor’s garb, but a white tuxedo, like James Bond.
He’s there to make a deal with a gangster named Lao Che, and they double cross each other, leading to a decent set piece where they scrabble for a diamond and some antidote on the dance floor, to gunfire, flaming skewers and other shenanigans. They escape with nothing but the antidote, falling into a rather swanky convertible driven by Short Round, a Shanghai street kid Indy took under his wing. For some reason the bad guys chase them, to a plane, where once again Indy gets cocky and heckles Lao Che as they escape, only to reveal that it’s the bad guy’s plane.
The pilots take a breather and they escape the plane in one of the film’s better action sequences, though it’s so ridiculous compared to the stunt-grounded action from the first movie that we know we’re in for a kid movie. The problem is that it’s a kid movie too dark for kids, and too silly for adults. Part of what made Raiders so good was that it was not for kids; we sure loved it, but they didn’t cater to us one bit. Hell, they poison a cute little monkey in it. Though he deserved it, he sig heiled once.
The hardest part about reviewing this movie is deciding who’s more annoying, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan from The Goonies) or Kate Capshaw (from Steven Spielberg’s casting couch). Sorry Kate, you’re no Karen Allen; though to your favor, I’m not sure anyone could have done better with the horribly written part. It needed a Kate Hepburn type with some spunk, but instead we got a scream queen. Most of the movie is either Short Round or Willie shrieking at something or other, and it’s pretty tedious almost immediately.
As a prequel, we’re puzzled; why is Indy a sleazy adventurer instead of grubby professor? Wouldn’t we rather see how he pissed off Marion, met Sallah, and so on? (Another example of Lucas screwing up a prequel). You don’t need Nazis and Biblical artifacts to make a good Indy movie, though the 4th one may disprove my theory. I enjoyed the “mysterious India” movies like Gunga Din, which also dealt with a secret uprising of the Thuggee cult. It was a good story, but where did it go wrong? Let’s start with who wrote the screenplay, the same people who brought us such runny turds as Howard the Duck and Best Defense, two of the biggest flops of the 80’s. Raiders was scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, and while he may have adapted Dreamcatcher, he has so many classics under his belt that his ball sack should be gold-plated and made into an honorary Academy Award.
The real story begins in an Indian village where the people are starving, because their magic stone was stolen. And also all their kids were taken. It’s a little confusing there. Indy being the hero he is, goes to find them, visiting the new Maharajah in the once-abandoned castle nearby, who is supposed to be behind it all. Instead of giving us one breakneck-paced action scene after another, we get slapstick gross-out scenes in sequence. Vampire bats and jungle antics; a dinner of eels, monkey brains, beetles, and eyeball soup; and finally a cave full of crunchy creepy crawly critters. It’s just not the same. The first movie had lots of humor amidst the violence, but here the balance is way off.
The castle’s dark secret is that it houses the newly arisen Cult of Thuggee, who instead of strangling travelers are now involved in child slavery, working them in a mine beneath the castle that also features a sacrificial lava pit that would be more at home in South America. They are lead by Mola Ram, a worthy enough villain, who has the child Maharajah under his spell. The spell comes in Kool-Aid form, and of course Indy is forced to drink it, and becomes a bad guy for a few minutes. He even beats up Short Round and tries to kill Willie, predicting the audience reaction to these new characters.
Much has been said of the movie being “too dark,” because of the infamous scene where Mola Ram tears out a man’s heart with his bare hand, and holds the still-beating ticker up for all to see. It inspired the PG-13 rating, which has ruined many a good movie. I have no problem with the violence in the movie, as its predecessor had pets poisoned, and pugilists pole-axed by propellers. The problem really is that it’s too mawkish and silly. What’s more of a heart-string yanker than kids enslaved? Wasn’t it bad enough that the Cult had spread famine across the land? The real cult of hidden stranglers was scary enough; making them slavers is like trying to make the Nazis worse by saying “yeah, they did all genocide stuff, but they also kicked puppies.”
Short Round has his own little adventure in trying to save Indy and beat up the Maharajah Kid, who has a Voodoo doll for some reason. Apparently the bad guys in this are Thuggee Voodoo Aztecs. Reminds me of Samurai Cat vs. the Nazi Werewolf T.Rex in those nerdy books of yore. The movie is only saved by the action sequences, which also fall short by relying on visual effects instead of the stunts that made the first one so thrilling. From the scene where the plane crashes into the mountain, you can tell that …. the plane has crashed into the mountain, Lebowski!
It looks incredibly fake, vs. the flying wing exploding in Raiders, which looked real, because it WAS. The mine cart ride plays out more like an amusement ride than a sequence, but it’s still exciting; it just doesn’t look real. When the water rushes down the tunnels, it looks as good as it did in the pulp movies this elegizes. And finally, the great Mexican stand-off on the rope bridge is thrilling, but damn do the falling guys look like obvious visual effects. Just throw dummies next time!
The final insult is a the lesson it pushes on us; Indy says he wants fame and glory, and Willie of all people, the material girl, suddenly is the moral compass. The movie tried to make our hero into a sleazy merchant in antiquities, shamed by the poverty of the third world into becoming the guy who wants everything in a museum. Thankfully the third ignores all this and rewrites his origin. It’s one of the best things about Last Crusade. I wonder if Short Round will get even a nod in the 4th movie; I can imagine him growing up to be Stephen Chow. If they ever make a 5th movie, which is incredibly unlikely, maybe he can beat up Shia LeBoeuf and do us a favor.