In “Top Gun: Maverick,” young hotshot pilots are trained up by Tom Cruise only to be told to sit down so that grandpappy can do the climactic pew-pews. It is a movie so impossibly nostalgic that it swings around and refuses to even accept the very concept of nostalgia. It asks, “How can we remember the good old days when we’re still in them? Our AARP hero is still a very important, virile missile shooter who can do the sex and murder way better than Miles Teller and his stupid mustache!”
In “Dial of Destiny,” Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) does not care about proving anything to anyone. The script says that his trademark gruff indifference is now turbocharged by family tragedy. It could also be that having irrefutable proof of God’s existence and first-hand knowledge that we are not alone in the cosmic universe puts things in perspective. Or as he impressively understates it: “A few times in my life, I’ve seen things.” Either way, although the film isn’t technically about passing the official Adventurer Archaeologist™ torch to the next generation, the willingness to allow a younger roguish performer to take center stage makes “Dial of Destiny” something “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t: Good.
It’s almost very good. You must first get past (A) the series’ troubling obsession with child endangerment and garishly cartoonish depictions of foreign countries, (B) the shockingly brutal dismissal of all grownup non-white characters, and (C) the repulsive de-aging in the opening sequence. The first two are rough but to be expected from the franchise. Thankfully, the last one must only be endured for 20 minutes. Wherever we’re at with CGI, we cannot yet digitally reproduce Ford’s affable arrogance.
You know who can capture Ford’s spirit? Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In her own wholly unique way, she embodies the core of Indiana Jones’s vibe. She’s magnetic and likable while acting like she could give a shit if you like her. She makes bungled escapes and highly choreographed fight scenes feel fluid, as Ford did, but laughs instead of grimaces through them. She is the glue holding this whole, totally unnecessary final chapter together.
The plot simply has Indy in search of a device made by Archimedes. After the ghoulish de-aged opening, in which the Nazis almost get their hands on said MacGuffin at the tail end of WWII, the film jumps to 1969. Indy is a sullen bachelor retiring from teaching when his goddaughter, Helena (Waller-Bridge), ropes him into a plot to retrieve a powerful artifact pursued by the evil Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen). Voller is the rare Nazi who thinks Hitler sucks, which makes him…still just as bad as every other Nazi. From a horse-vs-motorcycle subway chase to globe-trotting mischief, everyone bumbles and stumbles their way into a final act that is applaudably audacious.
Indy is limited action-wise by the fact that, according to median life expectancy, he’s dead. Director James Mangold embraces the limitation as liberation, turning Helena into a tomb raider that no on-screen Lara Croft has yet to touch. Waller-Bridge is so exuberant here, so coyly well-suited for this type of tomfoolery, that someone somewhere had damn well better get this woman her own franchise instead of continuing to plug her into other people’s.
The script feels expectedly Frankensteinian, as the nature of this sequel necessitated. The principle guiding rule here was inoffensive mass appeal. That it somehow manages to be a lithe, peppy affair is somewhat inexplicable. The film’s conclusion is also shockingly commendably well-conceived. It manages to say “You’ve had enough, old timer” without either being insulting or over-praising. It doesn’t slide into schmaltz by suggesting Indy will or should become Helena’s surrogate daddy in retirement. It doesn’t pander and say “But wait, maybe even more adventures do await!” It just suggests that embracing the present at any stage of life is the right move.
Indiana Jones casts a big pop culture shadow. “Dial of Destiny” isn’t likely to be anyone’s most or least favorite installment. All it does is deliver that familiar feeling of old-school pulp exploits, gives a warm embrace to higher learning and history, and lets Phoebe Waller-Bridge kick ass. This grail may not be holy, but it’s worth drinking from.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Justin Chang at the LA Times says “It’s a muddled if on-brand addendum, a tarnished curio, a not-bad epilogue and, intentionally or not, a lament for the film industry that used to be. Its seamless, largely soulless digital wizardry reminds us of everything Hollywood can do now, and also everything it can’t do anymore and maybe will never do again.”
Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central says “there is somehow not one single cheer-worthy moment in this film where Nazis are routinely punched. That’s the only surprising trick Indy 5 manages to pull off. John Williams’s epoch-defining ‘Indiana Jones Theme’ first swells beneath a 25-mph tuk-tuk chase, reducing it to self-parody. It’s like using that music to score a video of snails porking.”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “Overall, Mangold makes an Indy adventure that is lovingly stuffed with outrageous action sequences featuring Nazi-plagued trains, teeny cars, snapping eels, high-flying planes, and much, much more.”