by Steve Habrat
After the flawless Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was impossible for producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg to make another Indiana Jones film that would be able to compare to the first film. In 1984, Lucas and Spielberg released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an equally rollicking adventure that goes heavier on the supernatural horror but pales in the story department. It also boasts the coolest title in the Indiana Jones saga, sounding like a forgotten B-horror movie from the 50s. The Temple of Doom cuts back on the globetrotting and outdoor scope that Raiders of the Lost Ark had and opts for damp, atmospheric caves that are crawling with bugs, humid jungles where giant vampire bats swoop from above, and underground sanctuaries that are lit by torches, candles, and dotted with rotting skulls. Acting as the prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom embraces a much sillier plotline that reeks of something that would have been right at home in an EC Comic with lots of icky gore to compliment the comic book feel. With The Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg choose to push the action further, wasting absolutely no time at all to jump into all the shooting, running, jumping, and punching, eager to quicken your pulse and get your adrenaline pumping.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom picks up at a swanky Shanghai nightclub in 1935. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) narrowly escapes a brutal encounter with dreaded gangster Lao Che (Played by Roy Chiao), who is searching for the remains of Nurhachi, an emperor from the Ming Dynasty. Indy narrowly escapes the confrontation with Lao Che, dragging local singer Willie Scott (Played by Kate Capshaw) and ten-year-old sidekick Short Round (Played by Jonathan Ke Quan) with him. The trio boards a plane for India but they have to make a quick exit when they realize that the flight has been sabotaged. Indy, Willie, and Short Round finally end up in India where they are brought to a desolate village. The village elders enlist the help of the trio to locate Pankot Palace where the sinister Thugee cult is currently hiding. It turns out this cult, lead by the evil Mola Ram (Played by Amrish Puri), have kidnapped the villager’s children and have stolen their Shiva lingam stone, a stone that supposedly brings the village good luck. Indy, Willie, and Short Round set out to find Pankot Palace but they soon realize that this cult is dabbling in dangerous black magic and may be deadlier than they had anticipated.
Unlike the cleaner cut and handsome Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom is a scroungy and homely blockbuster, one with multiple foul moments. It’s a movie made by overgrown kids for kids. The movie gleefully leaps into mud puddles searching for one nasty visual gag after another. There are monkey brains here, exotic insects there, slimy baby snakes, and a still beating heart ripped out of one poor saps chest. When it comes to the plot, there is no question that the storyline here is stretched thinly and Spielberg fills the film out with lengthy action sequences. At one point, he blatantly addresses the idea that this film is a roller coaster ride in the extended mine car chase that at times resembles an indoor roller coaster. Yet the spirit of adventure is alive and well in The Temple of Doom, the same spirit that kept Raiders of the Lost Ark aloft. There is no question that The Temple of Doom is also a much darker movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that dabbles in child slavery, human sacrifice, and includes prolonged sequences where horror hangs heavy in the air.
While Harrison Ford’s Indy is still as likable as he was in 1981, in The Temple of Doom, he becomes the familiar 80’s action hero that he avoided in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He rips his shirtsleeves off to show off his biceps, is dipped in fake sweat, and pummels every foe that stands in his path. There is never a moment where you fear he won’t make it out of a situation alive. I wish that Spielberg had sidestepped this 80’s staple that was okay other places but a bit out of place for the Indiana Jones films. He does get one moment that is evocative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Indy trading punches with a hulking Thugee guard that is once again played by Pat Roach (the same guy who played the Nazi mechanic in Raiders). It ends in a fittingly gruesome death that mirrors the propeller death in Raiders. Indy finds himself aided by the consistently shrieking Willie, who is appalled by everything she stumbles across. She freaks over bugs, bats, lizards, elephants, and Mola Ram. I have to say that I prefer the tougher Marion Ravenwood to fraidy cat Willie Scott, although Willie does get one hell of an introduction, belting out “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. Another character I remain iffy with is Short Round, who has good and bad moments. At times, he annoys me, there to serve as eye-rolling comic relief for the kids and at times, I rooted for him, especially when we learn about his background.
As far as the villains go, Mola Ram has to be the most bizarre of the Indiana Jones realm. A deranged cult leader with wild bug eyes and with a fetish for tearing the heart from his victim’s chest, he is usually drenched in bright red lighting, his mouth curling into a sick smile. When he puts his demonic headdress on, he is really an intimidating sight. He is also found of dragging his lines of dialogue out, adding extra menace to each and every word. The introduction belongs to Lao Che, a cocky gangster who likes toying with Dr. Jones. They have a delectable war of words in the middle of a crowded nightclub, both Dr. Jones and Lao topping each other’s threats as the seconds pass. Ford himself gets to do bad when he is hypnotized by Mola Ram, which he seems to have a blast doing. It’s only for a short stretch but it is a nice little change of pace for the all-American hero.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does embrace some of the 80’s overkill, which does detract from the overall quality of the film. At times, it seems more concerned with production value and special effects over a lasting story. The effects in The Temple of Doom have not aged gracefully but there are a number of gags that still do hold together, mostly the heart being ripped from the chest. With the cranked up violence, the film is responsible for creating the PG-13 rating and it is easy to see why. Despite having a weaker story, The Temple of Doom has a number of iconic moments that elevate it to classic status. There was no way that Spielberg would ever live up to the first film and in a way, we don’t really expect him to. Featuring one hell of a final showdown on a rickety bridge that will have those who suffer from vertigo covering their eyes, a dazzling opening musical number, and plenty of eye candy for the entire family, Spielberg delivers an essential action film that more than holds its own.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is available on DVD.