Saturday, May 17, 2008
Fortune and Glory
As with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK came a welcome chance to see a 35mm print of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. And I wasn’t going to turn that down but as a result, I feel like I have some mixed feelings about it. Maybe you do too.
Do I even want to write this? I don’t know. How much do I want to criticize an Indiana Jones film anyway, even while acknowledging that I’m still going to always like it no matter what? My problem with TEMPLE OF DOOM isn’t that it’s darker, that it’s scarier, that it tries to do something different from RAIDERS, but the fact is that RAIDERS is still a more enjoyable, satisfying movie in every way for me. Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott is pretty much the opposite of Marion Ravenwood which is fine. But why did I sit there wondering “Who else could they have cast? Who was around at that point? Ellen Barkin? Michelle Pfeiffer?” I know, Spielberg married Capshaw, so it all turned out well and I don’t have anything against her personally, but I’m just asking. I don’t even know what my opinion of Short Round is anymore. Part of me likes him, part of me wonders why you need a kid in a movie if you’ve already got Indiana friggin’ Jones in there. If it helps, there probably wasn’t another kid on the planet who could have played this role half as well as Ke Huy Quan. For his part, Harrison Ford plays some comic moments throughout expertly, but the more sober elements of the character feel like they’re missing just a little too much.
After a film that sends us around the world, continually introducing us to new characters and elements throughout, TEMPLE drops us in India after its opening ( I remember an old roommate referring to where the characters wind up as “Matte Painting Village”) and never takes off again both literally and storywise. As a result, it feels less adventurous, more claustrophobic. It gets the job done, but there’s not as much meat there. As the film was deep into its dark, middle section in the titular Temple of Doom (realization from me on this viewing: I can see why this may have been a little much for some people) I really began to feel like there wasn’t enough going on. The script for TEMPLE OF DOOM was written by Lucas associates Willard Hyuck & Gloria Katz who co-wrote AMERICAN GRAFITTI but were also chiefly responsible for HOWARD THE DUCK. Watching TEMPLE this time, I was struck by how the middle section, which feels underplotted and underpopulated, bares a certain similarity to the middle section of HOWARD which in its own way is underplotted and underpopulated. I’m not saying this film should be considered on the same sort of level, only that a few structural similarities occurred to me (for that matter, a few of TEMPLE’s lamer lines could be imagined in that context as well). The funny thing is, TEMPLE OF DOOM has the reputation of being a non-stop roller coaster ride but this really isn’t the case—certainly not when compared to the giant summer blockbusters of today. But maybe the lack of real dramatic weight and incident somehow accounts for the feeling that while fun, the film doesn’t leave much of a mark that sticks with you.
After the somewhat engaging goings-on at the Club Obi Wan (did it have to be the Club Obi Wan?) when we hit India we’re hit with an unfortunate lack of interesting characters. Roshan Seth makes an interesting impression as Chattar Lal, prime minister at Pankot Palace and he seems to be set up as the main villain. Unfortunately when he appears again later he comes off as not much more than a henchman and if you’re watching closely you’ll notice that he literally disappears from the movie at a certain point, never to be seen again. Philip Stone was certainly memorable as Delbert Grady in THE SHINING, but here makes next to no impression whatsoever as Captain Blumburtt. Amrish Puri does certainly make an impression as Mola Ram but in terms of an adversary he can’t be compared to Belloq in RAIDERS. Ultimately, the character is really just a thug. Or thuggee. Either way, the pun is unintentional. Roy Chiao makes more of an impression in the opening sequence as Lao Che. Hell, David Yip (Chuck Lee in A VIEW TO A KILL makes more of an impression as Wu Han. Maybe they should have just set more of the film in Shanghai.
And yes, they’re not trying to make the same movie. That’s a good thing. The opening nightclub sequence from musical number to haggling over the diamond to all hell breaking loose is very enjoyable, as if Spielberg is trying to fit a lot of the madness of 1941 into ten minutes—one can imagine Zemeckis & Gale being mentioned for possible writers of TEMPLE, but maybe the reception of the earlier film meant that was never going to happen. I don’t know about the bullet hit that a person doesn’t notice until blood appears on their shirt or the fact that the Club Obi Wan (again, why?) is set on the top floor of this building, but hey, I’m fine with it. And the payoff with “Nice try, Lao Che!” works just great. I like how Spielberg manages to indicate a darker mood as the characters move further through India towards the palace. It’s like there’s something in the air that he manages to capture. Yes, the boobytrapped room with the bugs and the mine car chase are lots of fun. And once Indy takes control in the final act culminating in the fantastic payoff on the bridge I don’t really have any complaints. No surprise, the score by John Williams is exciting and memorable. I particularly like how it mixes the Raiders March with Short Round’s over the end credits. And for the very first time, I picked up on the quote of The Market Chase music from the first film as Indy attempts to recreate the shoot-the-swordsman gag. The film also dares to have three Wilhelms (the best right near the end) and how could I have any serious complaints about any movie that does that? Along with those screams, I noticed that this film seemed to contain more distinctive LOUD SCREAMS than any other film Ben Burtt ever did sound work on.
Hey, hang on a second, did I just skip all the way to the end? Aren’t there other things I like? Yeah, I suppose, and the Temple of Doom itself does make enough of an impression that it was ripped off by a number of other movies back in the eighties, with even DRAGNET getting in on that action (maybe that explains Dan Akyroyd’s cameo). But the thing is, I could go and see RAIDERS again in a theater right this second. The film lifts me up like only the best movies can. How are you supposed to follow that up, anyway? In comparison, so help me, it felt like TEMPLE OF DOOM was pummeling me down by a certain point and another viewing isn’t going to be necessary for a long time. But I know it’ll happen eventually and I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself when it does. There’s some great stuff in there, but I don’t walk away from it with any sort of feeling of elation. I still like the movie but as far as Spielberg excess goes, I’ll have to go with 1941.