By Greg Cwik
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Dir. James Mangold, U.S., Paramount/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney
Indiana Jones is the paradigm of the old-fashioned American hero. He’s a good guy with a gallant glint in his eye, an adventurer, intrepid and ever capable and so damn charming, even when he's cocky; the protector par excellence of historic antiquities who can read and speak all kinds of obscure languages and solve mysteries that have flummoxed the brightest and bravest for thousands of years. Portrayed inimitably by handsome Harrison Ford, Indy is the brainchild of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, progenitors of the American style of blockbuster entertainment whose inferior spawn continue to dominate multiplex screens. They share a vast imagination and incorruptible appreciation of awe; both are also grown men with an inextinguishable passion for the puerile (the face-melt climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the prolonged gross-out gags of wriggling bugs and monkey brains in The Temple of Doom). Spielberg may be the pontiff of popular American cinema, and the most successful filmmaker ever at the box office, having thrice made the number one grosser of all time (sorry, Jim Cameron), but it's his dexterity, his creativity as a technical filmmaker and heartfelt storyteller that make him an essential auteur. Since his early work in television, with his terrific episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo and his intense truck-chase debut feature Duel, Spielberg has been, more than any other filmmaker, fervid in his constant pursuit of intelligent, earnest entertainment, sincere spectacle. He is the consummate craftsman of escapist Hollywood.
James Mangold is an adequate craftsman; his approach is competent and intentions genuine, but he strains for seriousness and respectability. His ideas lack the pure-hearted awe and fondness for old-fashioned tales offered by Lucas and Spielberg, and spectacle without style is just noise. Think of Spielberg's dolly zoom in Jaws and E. T., two very different ways to use the same technique brilliantly, or that recurring shot of someone gazing through a window as the reflection on the glass blurs impressionistically around their face—Roy Scheider staring in frightened disbelief out the boat window at the great finned monster slashing the sea, a big yellow barrel trailing uselessly behind it; or Elliott supine and sickly reflected in the gleaming helmet of one of guys in space suits who come to take E.T. away; or Colin Farrell watching the precogs lie serenely in the water in Minority Report; or Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler aghast, his eyes tearfully trembling, at the horrors unfolding before him; or Haley Joel Osment silently, taking in the innocent smile of the son he’s replaced in A.I. It’s hard to recall any compositions or camera movements from Mangold's films. Take The Wolverine, based on a popular plotline from the comics about the mutton-chop'd Logan going to Japan and fighting the Yakuza; it has decent action geography and spatial coherence, but no life, no soul. It has hints of the ennui of Sydney Pollack and Paul Schrader's The Yakuza, but it keeps devolving into superhero silliness. When they announced that Mangold would take over for Spielberg for the latest and certainly last Indiana Jones film, I was more than a little disappointed. Nothing in his filmography suggests the joyous adventure seeking that defines Indiana Jones, no nerdy affinities for historical folk lore and legend. Lucas and Spielberg pay earnest homage to classic escapism, their beloved adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s; Mangold names Shane outright in Logan.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny begins in 1944. (Guess who the bad guys are.) Indy aids his friend Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) to prevent Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, all taciturn terror), a scientist working for the Nazis, from obtaining a mysterious dial called the Antikythera, invented by the Greek mathematician Archimedes to find the “fissures of time.” Indy is nimble-footed, leaping from train to train and punching out Germans left and right. His de-aged face in these early sequences is quite impressive, better than the more rudimentary effects in The Irishman and Gemini Man, though the elegiac use of the technology in those films had more emotional weight, imbued with an ontological ache about the passage of time, the de-aging effects in Dial are trying to satisfy fans, to dredge up old emotions. Indy successfully thwarts the Nazis. Twenty-five years later, Indy is old and alone, a bibulous, bitter man who teaches apathetic students at Hunter College and lives in a small apartment that borders on a shambles, and Voller is now working for NASA.
Yet his obsession with the Antikythera remains. Basil’s daughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a thief, tries to steal the dial and sell it to pay off her hefty debts to mobsters (including her former boyfriend, who appears prominently in one chase scene, bellowing out her name as Voller’s goons and a bevy of other baddies shoot at each other, and then is never mentioned again). Now Indy must once again save the world from Nazis, with Helena in tow. It’s not very creative, but it’ll do. Antonio Banderas, in his post–Pain and Glory renaissance, shows up briefly as Renaldo, a boat captain, and the great John Rhys-Davies returns as Sallah, Indy’s jolly, ever-loyal friend of many misadventures. The Dial of Destiny, the only Indy movie without serious involvement from Spielberg or Lucas, is respectful of its forebears, often to its detriment: it dares not to venture out and be its own thing. In being so unimaginative—in story and aesthetic—it ends up feeling like the progeny of modern megamovies, not the serials that inspired the character’s origins. It’s an imitation, a big-budget pod person. The set-pieces are moderately fun, in that way chaos is inherently enjoyable to an onlooker, but even though the stunts are sometimes impressive, the indistinct shots and cuts and the shiny computer effects sap the life from scenes that already lack creativity. The film looks expensive yet is cheaply conceived. The question “Why did they even bother?” lingers like foul air. The call-backs are forced and unnatural, though a certain cameo that harks back to the very beginning of the series is tender, peaceful in a way that feels earned. The film is a sequence of competent but stale set pieces strung together by a flimsy thread of plot, even more so than Raiders and Temple (Last Crusade had the fullest story of the three), and when the set-pieces lack life, problems with the plot and the dialogue are more obvious, and we are less willing to forgive.
Dial has five credited writers and cost $300 million, yet the film plays it safe, which is the worst thing a big budget film can do. It is, as is usually the case these days, an impersonal, idling piece of intellectual property. The name of a director in post–Iron Man Hollywood is no longer as essential to a tentpole event as the name of the franchise affixed to a trademark symbol. Dial of Destiny is evidence that the era of marquee auteurs has ended, as Robert Kolker opined in the 2011 edition of A Cinema of Loneliness. It’s hard to outright dislike Dial of Destiny, partly because Mangold, even if he lacks formal and aesthetic inspiration, even if he’s working with a limpid script, clearly cares deeply about the film and tries to capture the spirit of the series. But even the undeniable appeal of easy nostalgia can't negate how unnecessary the whole endeavor is.
Mangold is, however, a good director of actors, especially when the characters are in pain; like Spielberg, he is an empathetic writer, and he garners subtle, sad, hopeful performances. Copland, still his best film, a modest character study starring a chubby Sylvester Stallone as a laughed-at local sheriff in a Jersey town just over the bridge run by corrupt NYC cops, is stacked with great performances. Stallone has never been more tragic, more vulnerable, dour, and doughy. Hugh Jackman gets to play anguished, burned out, resigned to self-loathing, in Logan. Angelina Jolie earned an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, and as did Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line. In Dial, Mikkelsen burns with indolent intensity, as he did with his profoundly unnerving, captivating lead performance on the series Hannibal; he declines to chew scenery, and his one-dimensional villain has more screen time than any previous Indy villain. And of course, it’s a joy to see Ford slip back into a character that's been with him for more than half of his life. His dedication to the role is admirable, and who can deny the joy of seeing that cockeyed little glimpse of a grin, even if you never get the sense that he’s passionate about this anymore. Maybe he misses Steve and George, too. We understand, of course, that he’s here because he is Indy, and damn it if anyone else is going to crack that whip.