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REVIEW – “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”: Fate Takes a Turn for the Mellow

(L-R): Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) in Lucasfilm’s INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

When last we saw the oft-unpredictable mishaps of Indiana Jones, a character only George Lucas could fashion as an amalgam of evergreen 50s pulp fiction and 40s adventure serials, there was plenty in the way of closure, with the hat-wearing archeologist settling down to reignite a long-standing romance. And back in 2008, for better or worse, it would’ve been a fine conclusion to the character’s arc. That is, even if his Last Crusade clearly did it better. Some screen legends simply don’t know when to quit. Often enough, neither do the gatekeepers of their IP. Once Disney made their deal to acquire Lucasfilm, it was only inevitable their filmmaking tentacles would reach for another adventure in a similar vein. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is such a film, touted as a farewell twilight ride, and one that knows how to have a fun time. But just as much recognizing some stories aren’t meant to last forever, and that some hats should stay hung up as a reminder of those triumphs.

Good ol’ Indy (Harrison Ford) knows he isn’t getting younger, though he wishes life were on better terms. It’s 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was a success, and the famed archeologist/amateur museum curator is about to retire from his teaching gig, leaving enough time to sort out his personal problems. When, by pure chance, his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) wanders into view, asking for his help in uncovering a priceless artifact dating back to the Ancient Greeks. The dial of Archimedes, alternatively known as the Antikythera, has the allure of a bauble or kids’ toy. Although, its ramifications could easily blur space-time when placed in the wrong hands.

A flashback prologue proves that to be the case, as Indy is first seen in 1944 (and in reasonable de-aging) attempting to take the dial out of Nazi-controlled Germany, alongside close friend Basil (Toby Jones), Helena’s dad. Only barely do they escape the clutches of rogue physicist Dr. Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), whose nefarious intents for the device span the decades. We see him later trading evil science for a steady NASA gig, celebrating in the astronauts’ triumph while chasing Indy and Helena out of New York. Further mishaps involving henchman Klaber (Boyd Holbrook) and government agent Mason (Shaunette Renée Wilson) keep the pair on their toes, equably sauntering throughout varied pit stops, flexing the film’s endless location budget.

Director James Mangold (Ford vs. Ferrari) is aware he can’t emulate that Spielbergian aura this franchise has mostly benefitted from. But he certainly gives it a fair try, emphasizing the notion of borrowed time, a last hurrah that still ought’ve occurred with Last Crusade. But here it feels plenty final, trying many wild flourishes but not taking as many risks. Before long, if one’s not already invested in Indy’s character development, the notion would change to wasted time, while searching for the dial, in detailed fashion. We’re not completely immune from a belabored point in stretches, between still decent lore-building and a few too many lackeys in Voller’s friend circle. A convergence between factual and practical, with no clear winner. The Archimedes stuff is all rooted in truth, but it’s still coated with a page-turning sheen. So too is Mason’s presence as a handler to keep Voller in line, unnecessary at best.

Any distractions to Mikkelsen’s fanged bite as a qualifiable baddie wind up unwelcome. He’s only as flawless as the material around him. And at his peak, he’s a complete lunatic, taking Voller to an iconic stratum without overshadowing Ford’s unwavering magnetism. Often enough, that’s Waller-Bridge’s territory sweeping the rug from her mentor in both demeanor and physicality. The latter, is more within reason, with Mangold hesitantly working more active scenes around Ford to accommodate for even less risk. With age, he’s grown a bit more grizzled and remorseful. Here, he’s still as spry as possible, but with a Bogart-like charm. Both transience and focus remain sharp, glimpsing into any given mood without shying or lazing.

There remains a consistent tone and pace all throughout, only wobbling off-axis when the dynamic makes a needless shift. Helena’s close ally, the Short Round coequal Teddy (Ethann Isidore), and Indy’s rogue’s gallery of associates – Basil, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and fresh face Renaldo (Antonio Banderas) – are all guilty of throwing off the character rhythm, despite offering deserved camaraderie. As much as a late audible in the third act that defies all expectations while rejuvenating the plot at a welcome point. Only Waller-Bridge can quell that frustration, pivot it to a positive, and elevate her game. She is the ultimate champion, duking out with Ford in playful jabs, and with a grandiose landscape settling on touristy over adventurous. Not full-on Indy-like, more a Hope and Crosby buddy pic, trading songs for a growing stench of dread.

Even with Mangold entrusting co-writers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and David Koepp (Kimi) to aid in reminding the viewer whose name is on the title, he settles into a quieter rhythm, his cast blending in with the scenery whenever they’re not chewing it endlessly until there’s little left. Boredom was never at threat here, nor a bolder brush of danger. There’s enough in the way of above-average derring-do to sustain two and a half hours. And the influx of character drama is substantial in juxtaposing those gaps, though perhaps not cleanly. John Williams’ familiar musical strains prove to be a bit more graceful to the ears, keeping a fervent mood on a slow rise. Ditto for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, framing about every shot like a holiday postcard.

The way Mangold guides this cozy mug of nostalgia along, one would wish Indy’s prodigy would take a larger role. By default, she does, and yet it’s still under an omniscient Mr. Ford, enjoying the ride like I’m sure audiences hopefully will. I still enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, a modest smile across my face at its patient conclusion. This, despite some rampant disconnects, a distanced contrast in emotional resonance, and a few mild curveballs that pose a few questions, surprisingly save the film from a cringing plateau. It is far from perfect, and the difference easily lies with the directorial style. If nothing else, a workable story plays well coordinated with its director. Something I still wish Crystal Skull could’ve done and recognize it will forever fall short. The future legacy remains the same for this final bow as for its immediate predecessor; it’s fine enough, but nothing could ever surpass the original. (B-; 3.5/5)

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens June 30, with early runs starting 3PM June 29; rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, language, and smoking; 154 minutes.