There was genuine curiosity for many of us when James Mangold was confirmed as director on Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the fifth and final entry in the beloved franchise that started with a bang in 1981 when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas reimagined the Saturday matinee adventure serials they grew up with for a new generation that couldn’t get enough. Mangold, after all, was the man who not only resuscitated the weary Wolverine but gave the character a genuinely poignant sendoff that was thoughtful, textured, even profound in 2017’s Logan.
Maybe the Indiana Jones films, with their appealing combination of laughs and close-shave thrills built around a rugged, quick-thinking archeologist in a fedora and leather jacket, were never going to be a great fit for that kind of gritty treatment. But it seemed fair to hope for at least some kind of fresh take beyond the rinse-and-repeat formula of chases and gunfights strung together in different locations across the globe — or even just an invigorating back-to-basics course correction after the polarizing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
What the new film — scripted by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp and Mangold, with the feel of something written by committee — does have is a sweet blast of pure nostalgia in the closing scene, a welcome reappearance foreshadowed with a couple visual clues early on. That heartening return is also suggested by a moment when Harrison Ford’s Dr. Jones, yanked out of retirement after 10 years teaching at New York’s Hunter College, stops to reflect on the personal mistakes of his past. Which is pretty much the first time the movie pauses for breath, and it happens an hour and 20 minutes into the bloated 2½ hour run time.
That nonstop pacing might sound ideal, but it’s mostly an exhausting slog. When Dial of Destiny gives an explicit throwback nod to earlier episodes — Indy remembering drinking the Blood of Kali, enduring voodoo torture or getting shot nine times; or he and his new companions squeezing through a narrow stone corridor and discovering midway that it’s alive with creepy-crawlies — it’s a reminder of how much fun those early movies were. And still are, despite some eyebrow-raising racist caricatures that belong to a simpler, less culturally sensitive time.
Part of what dims the enjoyment of this concluding chapter is just how glaringly fake so much of it looks. Ford is digitally — and convincingly — de-aged in an opening sequence that finds him back among the Nazis at the end of World War II. Hitler has already fled to his bunker and Gestapo gold-diggers are preparing for defeat by loading up a plunder train full of priceless antiquities and various stolen loot.
Scurrying to save himself and rescue his professorial Brit pal Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), Indy ends up in a death match with a Third Reich heavy on top of the train as it speeds through a long mountain pass. But any adrenaline rush that extended set-piece might have generated is killed by the ugly distraction of some truly terrible CG backgrounds. The foundations of this series are in Spielberg’s overgrown-kid playfulness with practical effects. The more the films have come to rely on a digital paintbrush, the less hair-raising their adventures have become.
Another problem here is the tendency to over-complicate everything. That starts with the red herring of the opening scenes, the Lance of Longinus, said to have pierced the side of Christ on the cross. A whole lot of talk about this holy relic turns out to be mere distraction until we get to the real treasure, Archimedes Dial, a device believed to hold the power to locate fissures in time. The best Indiana Jones movies all have a supernatural element, so why not time travel? Well, you see why in the messy climactic stretch.
The bulk of the action takes place in 1969, when Indiana feels the strain even getting up out of his recliner (and Ford commendably shrugs off vanity, making no effort to hide his age). The unexpected return into his life of the late Basil’s daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whom Indy hasn’t seen since her childhood, revives thoughts of Archimedes’ golden double-discus gizmo and whether its purported properties might actually work. Helena claims to have chosen the legendary doodad as the subject of her doctorate thesis.
The dial was split in half by its inventor to avoid it slipping into the wrong hands — or to help flesh out a laborious new installment requiring multiple destinations — so half of it sits in an archeological vault, courtesy of Dr. Jones, and the other half lies in parts unknown. But Helena isn’t the only one interested.
It also brings Nazi physicist Dr. Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), who had a previous brush with Indy 25 years ago, out of hiding. He’s been living under an alias and working for the NASA space program, developing the technology that took the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Turns out he changed his name but not his political persuasion, so going back in time would allow him to “correct” history.
Helena, whose intentions are not what they seem, hops a flight to Tangiers with half the dial, reconnecting with her junior associate Teddy (Ethann Isidore) and setting up a private auction to sell the relic to the highest bidder. Indiana follows to stop her, and she’s unapologetic about valuing cash above all else. But as the half-disc slips from one set of hands into another, they all end up trying to outrun Voller and his vicious goons (Boyd Holbrook and Olivier Richters), following clues to locate the missing half and test-drive Archimedes’ invention.
Mangold goes from one set-piece to another without much connective tissue. They include a chase on horseback and motorcycle through the streets of Manhattan that crashes through an anti-Vietnam protest and an Apollo 11 “Welcome Home” ticker-tape parade before continuing in the subway tunnels. There’s also a frantic flight in Moroccan tuk tuks and a dive to the bottom of the sea off the coast of Greece to find a coded guide to Archimedes’ tomb. By that time, you’ll likely have given up following the contorted plot mechanics and just be zoning in and out with each new location.
Or maybe you’ll spend time wondering what drew third-billed Antonio Banderas to such an insignificant role as Renaldo, Indy’s old fisherman buddy, whose diving expertise provides a crucial assist while getting Indy into a tangle with a bunch of outsize CG eels so sloppily rendered that Disney can relax about any Little Mermaid sniping. Renaldo has a crew stacked with male models who have bodies that didn’t exist in the late ‘60s, which seems an intriguing detail, though he’s not around long enough to shed light on it.
Sadly, none of this amounts to much more than a talented director slumming it with mind-numbingly rote videogame plotting. Waller-Bridge makes Helena quick with a wisecrack, handy with her fists and a demon behind the wheel, and as is de rigueur in these less restrictively gender-coded times, she’s unflappably resourceful, never helpless. But only toward the end, when Helena has put aside her mercenary instincts long enough to show genuine concern and affection for Indiana, her godfather, does the chemistry between Waller-Bridge and Ford yield some pleasure.
Mikkelsen can be a fabulously debonair villain (see: Casino Royale), but any interesting idiosyncrasies the character might have exhibited are drowned in convoluted plot. This calls for a larger-than-life bad guy, and he’s somehow smaller. Filling the plucky young sidekick spot, Isidore’s Teddy is, well, let’s just say he’s no Short Round and leave it at that.
This is a big, bombastic movie that goes through the motions but never finds much joy in the process, despite John Williams’ hard-working score continuously pushing our nostalgia buttons and trying to convince us we’re on a wild ride. Indy ignores the inevitable jokes about his age and proves he can still handle himself in a tight spot. But Ford often seems disengaged, as if he’s weighing up whether this will restore the tarnished luster to his iconic action hero or reveal that he’s past his expiration date. Both the actor and the audience get a raw deal with this empty exercise in brand redemption.