WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Unconventional archaeologist Indiana Jones and his new-found companions, young orphan Short Round and discomforted nightclub singer Willie Scott, drop in on a childless and famine-stricken Indian village. The trio head to Pankot Palace and discover a terrifying secret – an underground cult of Thuggees ready to unleash their supernatural powers on an unsuspecting country.
Oh sequels, sequels, you poor things. You try to be like big brother but so rarely get it right, either aping the original so closely that you’re effectively a remake, or unwisely taking the material in strange new directions (like Matrix Reloaded or the ’home planet’ nonsense in Highlander II). And what do you get in return? Just a guaranteed payday from an eager, undemanding public. Not all bad news, then.
Actually, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom isn’t technically a sequel at all, since the action begins a year before Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana (Harrison Ford) finding himself in Shanghai nightspot Club Obi Wan (tee hee), conducting a relic-for-diamond exchange with nefarious gangster Lao Che (Roy Chiao). Things quickly turn nasty, forcing Indy to take Lao’s American singer squeeze Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a blousy bargaining chip. With the help of Indy’s adopted son, orphan and former pickpocket Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), they all escape – on Lao’s plane. Forced to bail out over India, the trio end up in a poverty-stricken village devoid of both children and a magical Sankara stone. To find out why, Indy and his friends are packed off to Pankot Palace, nominally under the control of a young maharajah but actually harbouring a violent cult, the Thuggees. The Thuggees worship a deity called Kali and use human sacrifice and the magic of the Sankara stones to get their way. It’s up to Indy, his diminutive buddy, their screaming companion and some nifty whip-work to stop the Thuggees from finding more stones and spreading their malign influence over more of India.
You could say that Spielberg and producer/story writer George Lucas wanted to subvert audience expectations with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Alternatively, you could say that they were deliberately trying to upset people: for whereas Raiders of the Lost Ark opened with heart-stopping Boys’ Own action and continued to dole it out in thrilling little packages, Temple of Doom starts with a chorus line of ditzy blondes doing a song-and-dance number (Anything Goes in Mandarin, not that that matters). Whose idea of action adventure is that? Additionally, Raiders caught the viewer up and swept him or her along with the purposeful flow of the plot, from jungle to classroom to Tibet to Cairo to…you get the idea. By contrast, while the protagonists of Temple of Doom aren’t literally parachuted into the plot, that’s only because Lao Che’s pilots nick the parachutes for the purposes of a gag.
Indy’s sudden arrival in India with Shorty and Wille is off-puttingly haphazard, and it’s not until the halfway mark that the film gets into any sort of stride, when the three of them go underground. From then, the massive sets that make up the sacrificial chamber and the mines, complete with built-in roller coaster (which inevitably inspired a real one), are the backdrop for a riot of fights and stunts against an orgiastic backdrop of sinister blacks and flaming reds. There’s also a tense bridge-based coda which gets the pulse racing, although by this time the story has boiled down to Indy having a punch-up with the red-headed bald bloke over, er, something. Once it’s set in motion, the relentless action of Temple of Doom does bowl you over, but the story is appalling mumbo-jumbo (the gross-out banquet, much like the rest of the movie, must be highly offensive to Indians, but hey ho) and this makes the viewing experience curiously empty.
The other reason for this, unfortunately, lies with the supporting characters (there‘s little to say about Harrison, who does his job efficiently enough). That’s the characters, not the actors, though it has to be said that neither Capshaw nor Quan do much to lessen the annoyance factor of Willie and Shorty respectively. Again, since Raiders showed quite brilliantly that Indy was capable of carrying the movie on his own, it makes no sense for Spielberg to inflict his father-son nonsense on us here. Nauseatingly, when Indiana goes into a hypnotic trance, Shorty shouting ‘I love you’ (and a poke with a flaming torch) are enough to snap him out of it. Shorty’s broken English never gets cute, and it doesn’t help that the kid does his own chop-socky action, beating up children and adults alike.
Meanwhile, although it made more sense to make Indy’s love interest a fish out of water and mine the comic potential therein, Capshaw’s Willie is a shrill, vacuous moaner with 80s hair; as Indy says, ‘the biggest trouble with her is the noise.’ Willie herself gets to say interesting things like ‘A boat? We’re not sinking…we’re crashing!!’ and AAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrgghhhhhhhhhhh!!’, so it’s little wonder that the scriptwriters’ efforts to kick up a bit of sexual tension at Pankot palace fall flat. Talking of the writers, pedants might be tempted to ask them the entirely obnoxious question, ‘If this film happens in 1935, how come Indy never mentions Short Round or Willie in Raiders or The Last Crusade?’
Raiders of the Lost Ark thrilled a planet’s worth of adventure lovers with perfectly paced action and adventure, allied to strong supporting characters and an arguably even stronger storyline. Its follow-up has a daft story which not so much borders on racist as annexes the term, invents two characters you’d quite happily sacrifice to a bloodthirsty deity, and can barely call on an hour of decent action. Luckily, that hour is a full-on, frenetic blast of stunt-packed thrills and spills which will be plenty enough to satisfy many and help them overlook our hero’s grating hangers-on. Tellingly, though, Spielberg and co. not only sailed much closer to the Raiders wind for The Last Crusade; they also made sure his fellow traveller had charisma to spare.