With Raiders of the Lost Ark an instant classic and probably the defining film of Harrison Ford’s career, it’s hardly surprising that a sequel was on the cards, to test whether Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could make that particular brand of lightning strike twice. Since going darker had worked such wonders for The Empire Strikes Back, it was decided that the same strategy could be used for the next Indiana Jones film; unfortunately, it didn’t work quite so well here.
A prequel to Indy’s last outing, Temple of Doom starts out with him teaming up with new sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Qwan) and new love interest Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). After escaping the villainous Lao Che in Shanghai, their plane crashes in the Himalayas, and they discover a village whose children “ and the sacred stones which protect it “ have been stolen by an evil Thuggee cult, and decide to try and get them back.
Let me say first that I actually really like Temple of Doom. But that does not mean I’m blind to its flaws, and there are a lot of them. The biggest problem is simply that it takes far too long to get good; after the trio find the secret lair of the Thuggee cultists the film becomes pretty brilliant, but it’s not until almost halfway through that this actually happens. An awful lot of the first hour is spent on unfunny slapstick comedy, which is a very unwelcome contrast to the gentle undercurrent of sly humour which made Raiders such a joy. It’s also worth noting that when Spielberg and Lucas decided to make this film dark, they really didn’t pull any punches, and the tonal shift from Raiders can be quite jarring. There’s a lot more violence than the first film, a sadistic, black-magic-practising cult as the villains, and child slavery driving much of the plot.
And then there is Willie. She is, to put it charitably, unbearable. To put it uncharitably, she is an awful, shrieking, self-obsessed harpy who seemingly can’t shut up for five minutes and doesn’t really have any reason to be here. I realise she may well be a deliberate throwback to scream queens like Fay Wray, but the fact that she replaces the charming, tough Marion Ravenwood of the first film is just a kick in the teeth.
If you can get past its problems, there is nonetheless a lot to like in Temple of Doom. Once the Thuggee are unveiled in all their horrible glory, the film finally becomes the thrill ride we expect from Indiana Jones, from the breathlessly exciting mine car chase to the final confrontation with the cultist leader on a flimsy rope bridge. The set design is astonishing, the central chamber of the Thuggee lair looking like it belongs in Hell itself, and the practical effects look as good as they did in 1984, with the obvious standouts being the aforementioned mine car chase and, of course, the infamous Kali Ma scene. Temple of Doom also contains some of the best music John Williams wrote for the Indy series, with the driving brass and percussion of Parade of the Slave Children really getting the audience into the proper frame of mind for beating up evil cultists.
While there is plenty to like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom overall, it must be said that you would be perfectly justified in giving up during the first half, since it critically lacks the wit, charm and sense of adventure which defined Raiders. Still, while it may never reach those lofty heights, it has a very good go at it in the second half; if the admittedly unnecessary darkness of the plot isn’t an issue for you, it eventually becomes a terrific adventure movie worthy of mentioning alongside its predecessor. It’s just a pity it takes so long to get there.