Despite the thrashing it received upon release, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arguably eclipses Raiders of the Lost Ark in at least one respect. The sense of adventure in this second episode of the series may in fact be the sumptuous of all four films. Preserving the Saturday afternoon serial style of Raiders, director Steven Spielberg and writer-producer George Lucas are mostly consistent in approach but opt for a whole new setting for the second adventure. The film opens in a Shanghai nightclub and gives Jones a Bond-esque introduction after a spirited song-and-dance bit for the credits. From there, Indy ends up on a plane that crash lands in India, leading him to a depraved village where the sacred Sankara stones have gone missing along with villagers’ children. This all happens in the film’s opening act—and I'm not even covering the outlandish action sequences. In some ways, the busy first act mimics Raiders of the Lost Ark’s final hour with its random chain of events strung together to resemble a plot. Then, Indy and his companions—the bratty American singer, Willie (Kate Capshaw), and the punchy young Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan)—are off to a mysterious palace, where within its caverns dwells a cult that enslaves children and makes human sacrifices to its evil god.
You have to hand it to Spielberg and Lucas: purely in terms of story, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is pretty deranged stuff. More importantly, they dig deep into the material and give it the inspired treatment it deserves. Amid the jungle trekking and heart extractions, Spielberg fashions oozing atmospheres and a frenetic pace that together give Temple of Doom a distinctive feeling from its series companions. The tradeoff, however, is that the film lacks the discipline and patience that distinguished Raiders. For instance, both both Willie and Short-Round are ill conceived, working only as comic relief in an otherwise gloomy film. Even worse, the screenplay has both sub-characters playing key roles in several crucial moments, which throws cold water on any energy the film builds in its second half. But based on the size of the set pieces, it’s clear that Spielberg is so preoccupied with delivering more kicks than the last film that he loses sight of the elements that makes this kind of storytelling such a thrill to begin with. We all know this is inherently kids’ material, but the beauty of Raiders of the Lost Ark is how it plays its scenario with a straight face and gives it such lavish treatment. When you see a 12 year-old beating up fully-grown and fit adults, the magic is lost; whether the material is believable to start with is beside the point.
What stings the most is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom plunges to depths that no other Jones film approaches. Even Harrison Ford has a hint of demonic zeal behind his eyes and more vigor in his voice. It's a shame that Spielberg and Lucas have publicly apologized for going “too dark,” because the real problem is that they compromise the deliciously dark core of the movie with forced humor and intermittent stupidity. Had they followed through on their initial impulses and not allowed their weaker inclinations to compensate for them, this film could have been really special. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in spite of its flaws, Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom is a movie of overflowing imagination. That it is sloppy, occasionally appalling, and uncomfortably colonialist doesn’t change that it is inspired filmmaking. Unfortunately, in pouring on mood and excitement, Spielberg left the flaws exposed and revealed just how delicate was the balance Raiders of the Lost Ark achieved. Indeed, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom cannot compare to the mastery of its predecessor and deserves some of the criticism it has received. But the sluggish, sometimes balletic experience it offers also makes for a spectacularly unhinged account of cinematic pleasure. (Steven Spielberg, 1984) ***