Indiana Jones, one of the 20th century’s great iconic film characters, has given generations of audiences lasting thrills and an influence over cinema that cannot be overstated. Birthed by George Lucas after his love for 30s and 40s serials and directed by Steven Spielberg, the globe-trotting, swashbuckling adventures of archeologist Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. have been a staple of American Cinema for the past 40 years. The most recent entry Kingdom of the Crystal Skull divided audiences as its 50’s sci-fi influence tended to go beyond the lines of silly, even in a franchise that involved eating monkey brains and voodoo sacrifice. Now with filmmaker James Mangold, having deftly handled the “old-hero-back-in-action” to complete success with Logan, filling in for Spielberg, Indy’s fifth and final outing gives star Harrison Ford the proper opportunity to bid farewell to his most beloved character. This is an over-plotted and slight swan song, but at least Indy’s still punching the hell out of Nazis.
Beginning with a prologue set in 1944 Germany where a young Indiana Jones (a rather impressively de-aged Harrison Ford) has another chance encounter with Nazis, stealing the film’s big macguffin, one half of Archimedes’ Dial, an ancient greek device capable of granting god-like abilities. Alongside his friend Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), Indy escapes the Nazis, but loses the other half of the dial. Flash forward to 1969; man has just been to the moon and Indiana Jones is approaching retirement. Alone now that he and Marion (Karen Allen) have split up, Indy is reunited with his goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who sends him off an another adventure to find the other half of the dial, while being chased by Nazi Astrophysicist Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) and his goons (Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters & Shaunette Renee Wilson).
Ford, at age 80, is now the oldest actor to star in a Disney-produced film since Richard Farnsworth’s role in the 1999 David Lynch film The Straight Story, and gives his final appearance as Indy the kind of farewell the character deserves. Ford’s soulful performance isn’t always done justice by the film, undercutting the gentler, somber moments by the insistence that it keeps moving by way of the traditional swashbuckling formula. There’s a strong lack of magic and, frankly, passion, here. James Mangold, an incredibly skilled filmmaker behind Logan, Walk the Line and Ford v Ferrari, is no Spielberg. There’s never that tangible sense of immediacy in Dial of Destiny. You never feel that gradual escalation in terms of tension where one-by-one, you feel the odds stacking against our hero. Think of the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Each minute, there’s a new obstacle being thrown at Indy and each obstacle comes with a forceful sense of pressure. Mangold’s film almost lacks this element, entirely.
There’s an overt digital sameness that plagues the set pieces, locations and background of the film; a worst-case scenario for an Indiana Jones film. An early set piece through a parade is both artificial in its presentation and in feeling. A chase sequence through Tangier is choppy and lacks the fluidity of Spielberg’s camerawork. Both Ford and Waller-Bridge have a fun, energetic dynamic with one another, but after a while that relationship stalls out and quits feeling fresh before the third act arrives. The final act, which does make one of the few notable creative choices in the film, does work well enough and has perhaps the most thrilling sequence of the film, next to the opening.
Mangold emulates Spielberg’s sense of discovery in terms of plot, where we’re thrown into the middle of our villains plan and learn who they are and their own motivations as the film goes on, but the villains are easily the weakest, most disinteresting in the franchise. Dial of Destiny makes a spectacular waste of its supporting cast. Mads Mikkelsen is playing a role he could perform in his sleep, and he might as well have. Antonio Banderas shows up and has maybe a dozen lines before unceremoniously leaving the film. Boyd Holbrook is playing almost the exact same character from Logan, but less flamboyant and menacing. It’s hard to get around just how unengaging and dull much of the film is.
The most successful material is the quieter, tender moments with Harrison Ford, which hit on very similar beats as Logan. There’s a far more interesting film underneath Dial of Destiny, but the stench of endless rewrites water down the fleetingly powerful material. An exchange between Indy and longtime friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) has the glimpse of weight and nostalgic heartstring-tugging the film does well, but rarely utilizes. The graceful ending gives a glimpse at the film that could have been, but it’s too late and underdeveloped to hit with the wallop it’s intending. It wants to be introspective and thoughtful ala Logan, but insists on going about a stale adventure that feels merely acceptable and through-the-motions. Even with a score by the returning maestro John Williams, you hardly get those soaring moments of emotion from the previous four films.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a long-winded final adventure for Harrison Ford’s Dr. Jones. Director James Mangold lacks Spielberg’s innovation and the new adventure is aggressively fine, at best. This iconic hero gets a graceful note to go out on, but the 154-minute Dial of Destiny is too uninspired and flat to warrant the journey getting there.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is in theaters now.