Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 14, 2021)
For those of us who were teens in 1984, I can’t overstate the eagerness with which we ran to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. We kids adored 1981’s classic Raiders of the Lost Ark and simply couldn’t wait to check out the sequel.
I could overstate the disappointment we felt, for most of us really enjoyed Temple. However, few – if any – of us thought it remotely lived up to the joys of Raiders. While an entertaining flick in its own right, Temple didn’t measure up with its amazing predecessor.
A prequel to Raiders, Temple opens in Shanghai circa 1935. Archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) makes a trade with double-dealing Hong Kong gangster Lao Che (Roy Chiao).
A ruckus ensues, and Jones has to make a rapid escape from the baddies, aided by his young Asian pal Short Round (Ke Huy Quan). Along the way, cabaret singer Wilhelmina “Willie” Scott (Kate Capshaw) gets forced to come along for the ride. The gangsters’ reach extends to the pilots who fly Indy, Willie and Short Round, and this leads the trio to get stranded somewhere in India.
While there, they learn the curse of a local village. A nasty force has kidnapped their children and brought ruin to their land after authorities stole a sacred stone that protects the area. Indy decides to help them and get to the bottom of the case, partially because the missing token seems to be a priceless artifact.
This leads Indy to the estate of a young maharajah (Raj Singh), the land’s nominal leader. However, Indy soon finds that a wicked cult called the Thuggees really run the realm, and led by the evil priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), they’ve enslaved the children to dig for the missing Sankara stones.
Indy needs to do what he can to free the kids, save the village, and get out alive himself. Along the way, he has to choose between “fortune and glory” and doing the right thing.
The main creative forces behind the Indiana Jones series – director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas – found themselves in something of a pickle when they went to make Temple, the first expansion of the Raiders universe. Actually, it’s the same challenge that confronts all sequels: viewers want something that doesn’t just repeat the first movie but also that doesn’t deviate too far from the original’s template.
Temple went for something different and darker than the swashbuckling and reasonably light-hearted Raiders. In fact, they might have made things too rough and sinister.
Temple includes some rather intense moments of violence, especially given that children become the focus of so much negativity. Raiders had its scary bits, but they stayed somewhat cartoony in general. Sure, it was gross to watch those faces melt at the end, but it wasn’t like we could really take that seriously.
Some might excuse the violence of Temple as being too supernatural to view as part of the real world, and they might be correct. Nonetheless, the sight of a priest who rips a man’s heart from his chest seems pretty shocking, and the scenes in which the Thuggees abuse children are all too real.
I don’t present these issues necessarily because they bother me or I think they’re inappropriate. I mention them because they led to much of the backlash against Temple.
In fact, along with the cartoony but occasionally gruesome Gremlins, Temple directly led to the creation of the “PG-13” rating. Many felt Temple and Gremlins were too explicit for the fairly innocuous “PG”.
I’ve always liked Temple, but I will acknowledge that it remains my least favorite of the three Indiana Jones flicks from the 1980s. Part of the problem comes from the fact it seems to try a little too hard to differentiate itself from Raiders. It feels like the filmmakers worried so much that they’d just remake the original that they went too far in the other direction.
That means that in place of the gritty and assertive heroine Marion Ravenwood from Raiders, we get the screechy, spoiled and hysterical Willie. Many people don’t care for the character and see her as a step back due to her selfish and whiny personality.
It’s tough to combat those opinions. Granted, Willie becomes proactive on a couple of occasions, and all the anti-Willie detractors ignore how often Indy needs to save Marion in the first flick.
Nonetheless, the impression remains, and it’s true that the tough and rough Marion feels like a better romantic match for the pragmatic Indy than does the superficial and silly Willie. I don’t dislike her, but she comes across as pretty annoying at times.
The insertion of Short Round feels somewhat gratuitous and doesn’t serve much purpose. Did Indy really need to become a parental figure just because the film involves enslaved children?
No. The Short Round character remains largely superfluous.
That’s a lot of complaints – what do I actually like about Temple? Well, it does deserve some credit for attempting something different. The filmmakers easily could have gone back to the well and just remade Raiders with some small twists, but Temple feels like its own beast.
I admire the levels of darkness to which they take the flick as well. Spielberg tells an intense story and doesn’t lighten up the story with much fluff.
Too many filmmakers would alleviate the tension too frequently, but Spielberg keeps things nasty, which may bother some viewers, but it helps create a sense of a cohesive world.
Spielberg also delivers some great action, as Indy goes through many travails and these take him through a variety of situations. From the frantic musical number at the start through the mine chase at the end, Spielberg supplies some good set pieces and makes them pretty darned exciting.
It seemed inevitable that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom wouldn’t live up to its predecessor; Raiders proved to be a genre-defining classic with no peers. Temple is more erratic and less satisfying, but it generally delivers the goods.
The flick provides a consistently dark atmosphere that makes it the least accessible of the 1980s trilogy, but it mostly works and seems like an interesting adventure.