The Indiana Jones franchise has a unique history. Conceived by George Lucas as his second tribute to the weekly serials of his youth, he pitched it to Steven Spielberg as an alternative to the James Bond franchise of which his friend was so keen to be a part.
Having considered it as something that could run to anything from one to five entries, we finished the 1980s with three of these, and then… nothing, for nineteen years. This has made its position as an ongoing franchise questionable. Is it an historic series, ripe for rebooting? Is it something to leave to time and posterity, with our hero riding off into the distance at the end of Last Crusade? Or is there life in revisiting Dr Henry Jones periodically through his life. Certainly the 2008 entry, set in 1957, clouded the issue, as mediocre reviews left it unclear as to whether the character belonged fighting Nazis in the 1930s, or whether the indifferent response was due simply to poor execution.
So, here we are in 2023, with Harrison Ford about to turn 81 years of age as another entry in this franchise hits cinemas. A prologue is set in 1944 (never explicitly said onscreen, but in pre-release marketing materials), as Indy and his colleague from Oxford, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) are attempting the retrieve the Lance of Longinus (the spear that drew blood from Jesus). Telling his superiors that the lance is a forgery, Nazi Physicist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) reveals that they have found half of Archimedes’ dial, a device that can locate fissures in time. After a battle on a train, Jones rescues Shaw and acquires the dial. They escape the train just as it is destroyed by Allied bombers.
The main portion of the film is set in 1969, around the time of the moon landing; this means that the character (born in 1899 – Harrison was originally the same age as the character, but this has slipped over the decades) is around seventy and living alone in New York. We will learn that he is separated from his wife Marion, and that Poochie died on the way back to his home planet. Sorry – his son, Mutt, died in Vietnam, causing the strain that led to the separation.
Henry is teaching at a college in the city and seems to be on his last day before retirement (despite preparing his students for exams, meaning he is going part way through his courses, but… whatever. Indy is lonely, bored, and his apartment is spartan to say the least. In contrast to the rapt attention he got in his classes in years gone by, his students are bored. His life is not good at all.
Meeting Helena Shaw, (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter of Basil, in a bar after a lecture she had attended, and after Indy’s retirement bash, she reveals she is an archaeology graduate looking to retrieve the dial. Having nearly driven her father insane, Helena learns that Indy had promised Basil he would destroy it. In fact, Indy has hidden it in a university storeroom, and when they go to get it, they are attacked by henchmen of Voller (now working in the US and having helped NASA with the Apollo 11 mission), led by a CIA Agent. Helena crosses Indy, leaving him to this group as she escapes to sell the item on the black market in Morocco. Escaping on a police horse, Jones is assisted by Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), now living and working in America, who knows of Helena’s plan and location. (How? We do not know.)
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Heading to Tangiers, Indiana prevents the sale, and, meeting Helena’s sidekick Teddy (the allusion of this character is obvious, so we shall just refer to him as Tall Round), they get into a long tuk-tuk vs cars battle both with Voller and with a spurned ex of Shaw’s, as we learn more about her crossing and double-crossing in the recent years (Sallah having revealed she had arrest warrants for selling contraband). From there they head across the world to locate the second half of the dial, in a race against the former Nazi (who will magically appear near Indy any time the plot requires him to), who is looking to change the events of World War II, just not in the way anyone might imagine.
This film is a mix of the good, the bad and the debatable. Let us start with the good – which is a short list. The prologue is excellent – if not quite everything about it works. This is the first time since 1989 we have seen Indiana Jones in his natural era (in and around Nazism) at his peak. For the flaws in execution we will come to, this is the Indiana Jones with which audiences fell in love. Fast action, wisecracking, creepy villains, and our lead making it up as he goes along in a hostile environment. As the start to a new entry, this is close to perfect. Out first introduction to Mikkelsen shows potential for a classic Indy villain, as he is intelligent, a little cold, and has a level of expertise that will challenge Jones.
Action, in general, is shot very well. The issues are due largely to having to shoot around an octogenarian, but it is propulsive, and edits together well. The tuk-tuk chase is up there with some of the best in the series, and it fits the template: battered vehicles, our leads using their environment to gain advantages/overcome disadvantages, and a feeling that contact is hurting Indiana Jones. Tangiers is also a very fitting environment for the character.
On the bad side: the action. Okay, yes, we know we put it as a positive, but the decent conception of sequences cannot overcome some ropey effects work, and the absence of any feeling of peril. These just feel a little like going through the motions. This is due, in part to the fact that everything runs just a little too long. Set pieces seem to last forever, with far too little downtime to let everything breathe. This makes the film feel overstuffed. This feeling is exacerbated by an overlong third act, in which Jones often feels like a bystander, and everything simply takes too long to play out. It has that Rise of Skywalker fetch quest feel at times, though – to be clear – this is nowhere near as bad as that film. Much of problem with this film is due to the clear elephant in the room – and a matter with which we are genuinely sad to have an issue: our leading man’s age.
Harrison Ford was approaching 66 years of age when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released. For all of the coverage his age got at that time, he still looked good in the action sequences, with his fist fights with henchmen still convincing. Here everything about actor and character is wrong. Harrison is too old now to play the character as conceived in this film. His body has lost muscle mass with age, such that he looks frail in some sequences. This leads to filmmakers not knowing how vulnerable to make him.
In some scenes, such as the scene where he is framed for murder, he tries to fight back, but is not strong enough, but minutes later he is knocking out henchmen with one punch. In the final act he is injured, and at times that is not a problem, and he is fighting well enough, and at others he is like a doddery grandfather needing help. There is zero consistency. This leads to action needing help from CG (the poorly done shot of Indy on the horse from the trailer still looks awful) that veers from terrible to acceptable, and de-ageing work that is not quite good enough whenever the character moves. So, Indy in 1944 (or about seven or so years later in another flashback) looks fine, then he will move, and the facial muscles move too abruptly, and the eyes look vacant: we were reminded of interrogation sequences from the video game L.A. Noire. Then Jones sprints across the top of the train and it looks like Tintin’s run (the cartoon, not the CG film).
This is exacerbated by the problem a lot of modern films are having with its portrayal of heroes. Daniel Craig’s Bond ended up with audiences feeling sorry for his horrible life, for example. These deconstuctionist films are no longer wish fulfilment. Indiana Jones in 1969 is a genuinely miserable drunk waiting to die. His job is being taken away from him, his marital home has been taken away from him, and, in the final act, he genuinely wants to be left to die. In the film’s coda a character asks him if he is ‘back’ – meaning back to being himself. Well, moments earlier he was begging for death, so we would say no to that!
The film’s presumably intended arc of him finding himself again just is not really there. This is a miserable final outing for a wonderful screen archetype, and no amount of calling back to happier times in that coda can disguise this. After a slog of a final act, following a miserable man of now-questionable strength and talents, we were just left bored and a bit depressed by the whole thing. It looks like an Indiana Jones film and, at times – particularly in the prologue – it does a fairly good impression of one, but, simply, it is not. It is a series of set pieces linking together the story of a tired, morose professor, played by a man ten years beyond being able to pull off what this movie requires.
Our concluding thoughts go to the debatable. Namely Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Now, some of the hysterical reaction will have it that this film is Lucasfilm positioning her to undermine Indy and take-over the franchise. This is hyperbole. There is one sequence where this case could be made: when she turns up in her final act outfit and asks Tall Round what he thinks – that felt like a little audience test for a potential Disney+ series, but it should be noted that Ford suggested her, not Kathleen Kennedy. That said, she will be divisive, to say the least. We shall split the difference: good performance, awful character.
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The actress being in the film as a co-lead is not the problem, at least, not in and of itself: if Indy had more agency, and she had more empathy, there would be no problem. Waller-Bridge is really good and gives the film much needed energy (as it is not as if Ford has any), but the character is poorly conceived. Morally, she is no better than Ray Winstone’s ‘Mac’ last time out, and she never truly improves. Selfish to a fault, this is meant to play as roguish, but often, it comes off as sociopathic. This is a greedy character with little compassion, who cannot even recognise when Indiana is grieving a friend: awful.
In short, whereas film four left a debate as to whether another entry could redeem the series, this is now too far gone. Ford cannot any longer pull off the action, Jones as a character has little left for which to live and, let us be honest, the series does not belong in the Space Age. Nice try James Mangold, but Logan this is not.