Nostalgia. It can be a double edged sword for a film. Although the return of a beloved character or franchise can certainly help sell cinema tickets, it can also bring about a level of expectation based on what has come before.
Some films have been known to meet these expectations better than others. The likes of Sylvester Stallone was able to pull it off in the past with the releases of Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), both of which proved to be a hit amongst fans, with the veteran action star returning to two of his most popular roles.
However, one just has to look at Stallone’s fellow action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger to see how nostalgia doesn’t always bring about success. While Terminator 2: Judgement Day (2021) is lauded as one the finest Hollywood blockbuster of all time, it subsequent sequels haven’t exactly been heaped with the same praise, with the most recent entry Terminator Dark Fate (2019) going on to become one of the biggest box office bombs in recent memory.
Even recently with the release of The Flash (2023), the main selling point of the film was the nostalgia of Michael Keaton returning as Batman rather than who was playing the Flash. In certain regards it worked, as Keaton turned out to be the main selling point of the film, but as great as he was it still wasn’t enough to make the film a box office success.
Now it’s time for the return of another classic hero with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, another film that treads heavily on nostalgia, which works both to the film’s betterment as well as its detriment.
Harrison Ford returns for what is being reported as the last time as everyone’s favorite archeologist. It’s now 1969 and Indiana Jones’ (Ford) best days are behind him. Just as he’s preparing to settle into a well deserved retirement, he is pulled back into the fray by the reappearance of his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller Bridge) who is searching for the Antikythera, an ancient device that could alter the course of history.
With Helena putting herself in harm’s way and the reemergence of old adversary Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), Indy is forced to dust off his trademark fedora and bullwhip once again and set off on another adventure in order to stop the Antikythera falling into the wrong hands.
Many were disappointed that the series’ regular director Steven Spielberg would be sitting this entry out. Personally I thought it was for the best as it is clear that his heart isn’t in it. One just has to look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) to see how disinterested he had become with the franchise.
Even with Spielberg’s departure, I wasn’t worried as long as there was a worthwhile replacement. The television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992) had proven that other directors were capable of creating exciting adventures, with the likes of Simon Wincer, Vic Armstrong and Joe Johnston all making notable contributions to the series.
James Mangold appeared to be more than a worthy contender to take up the mantle, especially when looking at his work on Logan (2017), another adventure that focuses on a hero nearing his end years but not going down without a fight.
At first Mangold seems like an inspired choice, with him kicking the film off with a blistering set piece that harkens back to the best of the series, finding Indy once again facing off against the Nazis during WW2. The well documented de-aging effects aren’t exactly perfect but the ensuing action has a great energy to it, working as a great teaser of things to come.
Unfortunately, after this initial spectacle the film considerably slows down to show us how Indy’s life has changed in the ensuing years, with him now being a bitter old man bordering on alcoholism. Just once I would like Hollywood to have some originality. It appears the default setting for aging action heroes is to make them miserable old bastards.
However, grumpy and miserable is something leading man Harrison Ford can do in his sleep, with him once again being terrific in the lead role. Even nearing 80, he still throws himself well into the action, albeit a lot of it being assisted through the use of CGI. No matter the supporting cast, Ford is still the most electric performer on screen.
After slowing down, Mangold finally treats us to another quality action scene, with Indy being chased through a busy ticker tape parade celebrating the moon landing, with him eventually fleeing through the crowd on horseback. It’s an exciting set piece, even with some visibly poor CGI.
The remainder of the film pretty much follows suit, with there being an exciting action scene only to slow down again for some poorly written exposition. As well staged the ensuing action scenes are, I did feel they were lacking something, in particular sense of fun. This Indy outing feels more like it’s going through the motions, never coming close to matching the bravura truck chase of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the mine cart chase of Temple of Doom (1984) or the speedboat chase of Last Crusade (1989).
Speaking of a lack of fun, there is certainly a melancholic vibe to proceedings. This partly comes with the realization that Indy isn’t the man he once was, but also down to more life changing events that have changed his outlook. While this does create some heartfelt moments, it’s not the kind of atmosphere that best serves an adventure film of this type, especially one that becomes as silly as Dial of Destiny.
Additionally, this is the first Indiana Jones film that I felt had serious pacing issues. While Mangold clearly has skills helming both action and drama as shown through his back catalogue, the dramatic and expository scenes here have a tendency to drag. I never thought I’d find myself bored during Dial of Destiny, but this is what happens, with the unnecessary long 154 minute runtime doing the film no favors.
The blame of this could be lain at the scriptwriters, but Mangold also had a hand in the film’s screenplay. For everything the screenwriters get right, there’s something else that lets the film down. My main issue with the script however mostly boils down to the new characters that have been included.
Mads Mikkelsen is always great, and his Nazi scientist Voller certainly makes for a good villain, but even as great as he is there is so much more that could have been done with his character, with him never being as evil or threatening as he should be.
Saying that, he is certainly more threatening than Boyd Holbrook’s inept henchman Klaber who spends most of the film getting his ass handed to him by the film’s heroes. Considering his status as an actor, this is really a nothing role for Holbrook.
The heroic side doesn’t fare much better. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has shown her talent with the likes of Fleabag (2016) and Killing Eve (2018), and her acting here is fine but she is done no favors by the fact that Helena is the most unlikeable leading lady Indy has ever had. Her character is a complete arsehole who on several occasions throughout the film leaves Indy to his fate, not caring if he lives or dies.
Clearly producer Kathleen Kennedy has further plans for the Helena Shaw character, with Waller-Bridge being afforded more screen time than her character really deserves. I have noted online others who have appreciated her character, but I don’t understand why, as she comes across as a complete narcissist until she begins to come around as the film races towards its over the top finale. It’s as if the writers all of a sudden remembered that she is meant to be likeable.
Waller-Bridge isn’t helped by the fact that for much of the film she is accompanied by the annoying Teddy played by Ethann Isidore. Why does Indy’s sidekick have her own sidekick? Teddy is just one sidekick too far and is a poor imitation of Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round. His character is mostly unnecessary until the finale, but even then the writers could have changed the script slightly so his involvement wouldn’t be required.
Amongst the main cast there are also a series of cameos peppered throughout, both old and new to the franchise. The great Thomas Kretschman appears early in the film as a Nazi, where he tries to stop Indy and Toby Jones’ Basil. Jones also impresses in his small role and I would much rather seeing him as Indy’s sidekick for the remainder of the film than Waller-Bridge.
Antonio Banderas also shows up briefly as an old friend of Indy’s. It seems he’s only there to add a bit of more star power to the film, but he doesn’t get much to do. As expected, he is his typically charismatic self but his role just feels like a waste of a quality actor.
As well as newcomers the film still finds time to include series regulars like John Rhys-Davies Sallah. His appearance adds a bit of emotion and I just wish he was in the film more.
Like all Indy features, the action is once again accompanied by a John Williams score. It isn’t one of the legend’s best, but he still hits all the necessary beats, with the iconic theme still having the ability to give you goosebumps. It was reported that this would be Williams final score but he seems to have backtracked his decision since.
Dial of Destiny is definitely a superior film to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it is great to see Ford given the opportunity to reprise what is undoubtedly his most popular role. Unfortunately it’s less than the sum of its parts for while the film has some great sequences it is hamstrung by other elements that aren’t as well developed. This isn’t the send off that I was ultimately hoping for but at the same time it could have been worse. I would probably still recommend fans of the series to check it out, and obviously if you were a fan why wouldn’t you?
Plot: 2/5 Acting: 3/5 Action: 3/5 Overall: 2.6/5