The crack of his whip, the weathered fedora, and the ever-bruised figure are but a few signatures that make up one of the most recognizable and loveable characters in film history. Indiana Jones and his swashbuckling adventures are the stuff of legend, fusing heart, charm, and spectacle into a dazzling, unforgettable whole. His journeys are rife with relatable arcs, great characters, and a very direct but impactful sense of humour (“We are going to die!”). The universally maligned fourth entry, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was lacking in those qualities. Its follow-up, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the first movie to not be directed by Steven Spielberg—James Mangold is now at the helm—does mark a return to form, but only sparingly.
Though Dial has all the right pieces to be another classic entry in the saga, Indy’s latest adventure quickly runs out of steam, transforming into a serviceable journey that’s undeserving of the whip. Its consistent struggle with pacing and the laboured chemistry between its central duo render Harrison Ford’s final turn as Dr. Henry Jones more admirable than loveable.
Dial of Destiny opens (quite literally) with a bang. Indiana finds himself captured by his natural enemy, the Nazis, during the twilight of World War II. His natural escape and battle against his foes across train tops directly taps into the classic charm, spirit, and magic of the franchise. Flush with all the inventive fisticuffs and madcap bravado that first captured audiences over 40 years ago— wonderfully underpinned by an epic, whimsical score by John Williams. Yet, the digital de-aging applied to Ford during the sequence districts more than it impresses.
As a result, the decision to stage the opening during nighttime doesn’t feel natural but instead, as a concession used to mask the limits of the computer-generated trusses holding the sequence together. Though unabashedly delightful and exhilarating, the opening 25-minute set-piece is caught in a struggle to reconcile the old and the new, feeling slightly off because of it. An unfortunate quality that endures throughout the film’s 154 minutes.
It then picks up in 1969, with Dr. Jones rapping on the door of retirement, giving one final lecture to a group of less-than-enthusiastic students. Indiana is yanked back into his swashbuckling past when his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) seeks his help in locating the mysterious, powerful Antikythera. The device, also called the “Archimedes Dial” is purported to have the power to pinpoint “fissures” in time. Though the ever-skeptic Indy doesn’t believe it works, Helena and the Nazis sure do. She and Indiana race to stop Dr. Voller (the always great Mads Mikkelsen) and his henchmen—including a ruthless Boyd Holdbrook— from finding the pieces of the dial and using its alleged powers to alter the fabric of history and turn the tide of the Second World War.
Yet, the frustrating aspect of Dial of Destiny lies in how it scratches at the surface of its predecessors’ magic but never breaks through to the core. This primarily rests in the film’s scant characterizations, especially when it comes to Indiana Jones himself. Though the film acknowledges he is no longer the limber, vigorous archaeologist he once was, Dial doesn’t devote any meaningful time to explore how the years have actually changed him. Vietnam-era grief has significantly taken over his life, but those emotions never drive Indy’s actions over the course of the narrative. Instead, they’re simply mentioned in passing, in between each chase sequence.
The film admirably attempts to recapture the classic formula by having Indy partner with a sly-mouthed woman and a resourceful youngster—here it’s Teddy (Ethann Isidore), a shabby counterfeit of Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round from Temple of Doom— battling against a relentless pack of Nazis. Yet, the film attempts to wedge a now grizzled and jaded Indy into the old style without embracing and confronting how far removed he is (both mentally and physically) from the previous films. Rendering what was supposed to be a glorious swansong into a casual, middling entry. The emotional stakes and arcs are merely mentioned but are never applied by Mangold and company. Cementing an Indiana Jones that fails to meaningfully grapple with an ever-changing world. Why even set the film in the late ‘60s if the period was only going to be used as set dressing?
The emotionally stilted timbre of Dial of Destiny only grows more strained by the labored chemistry of the central duo. Helena and Indy never play off each other in a satisfying manner, with their opposing motives and conflicting personalities failing to walk a cathartic tightrope. Moreover, Helena never buttresses Indy’s arc but instead tramples over it, as Indy ends up playing second fiddle in his own grand finale. It also doesn’t help that Helena’s mouthy personality begins to take on a more grating tone as the film soldiers on, with her attempts at comedy eliciting more eye-rolls than laughs. It’s only when Ford takes center stage does the magic begin percolating.
Mads Mikkelson and Boyd Holbrook bring forward sturdy performances as the film’s vile antagonists but are given little to work with. Their characters never become anything more than played-out Nazi villains. It’s truly a shame, as Mikkelson’s subtle inflections and Holdbrook’s alluring southern drawl provide glimpses of personalities that are completely wasted.
Though emotionally and comedically challenged, Dial of Destiny does succeed as an action film. Yet, it’s one that climaxes in its opening act, with intermittent peaks on the way to the credits. The set pieces do harken back to the original spirit of the franchise but aren’t as memorable or as impactful as they should be. Its final act, while a bit rushed and threatening to jump the shark, is a fitting ode to the archeologist’s desire to be at one with history.
Yet, despite its shortcomings, it is incredibly hard to hate Indiana Jones. Yes, the film lacks emotional heft and a pivotal sense of urgency, but one can’t deny the pleasure of laying eyes on the swashbuckling legend and his friends one last time, even if it was in the fourth-best Indiana Jones movie. Rest easy Indy.