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Film

Why 'Temple of Doom' is the best movie in the Indiana Jones franchise

The affection Indiana Jones seems to inspire in young fans has little to do with their script quality: would anyone voluntarily watch Last Crusade if it wasn’t for the presence of venerable knight, Sir Sean Connery? That sense of nostalgia might explain why the films are so linked to one point in time and era: like Duran Duran, the Indiana Jones series are so unmistakably 1980s in their outlook, glamorising the male bravura in a series of exceedingly unlikely set pieces.

Between the rousing Raiders and the by the numbers action of Last Crusade came Temple of Doom, tipping the clocks back to the decade in which the series was supposed to be set in: the 1930s. This time around, there were no cartoonish Nazis to highlight the rise of racism in America, but a plot about missing stones in the heart of India, bringing Indy and his audiences headfirst into the cinematic genre that had entertained so many in their heyday.

Indiana Jones, the antithesis of the more family-friendly fodder of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, promised to examine the effects of violence on the human soul, complete with a dark sense of humour that made the film more engaging for parents to invest in. Temple of Doom is the most aphoristic of the four – soon to be five – features made to date, examining the corruption of the soul in the face of great power.

Indiana Jones makes no secret of his lustre, but every character carries an ambition to get something out of the mission, whether it is Willie Scott’s desire to become a world-famous lounge singer (played with vigour by Kate Capshaw, a rising talent who would marry director Steven Spielberg in later years), or the nefarious Mola Ram, who uses his influence as a thugee priest to bend people to his knees (performed, rather excellently, by Shekhar Kapur mainstay Amrish Puri).

Indeed, the only character who exhibits genuine integrity is Short Round, the excitable child who brings out the charm and best out of everyone. Jonathan Ke Quan walks the tightrope between charming and annoying, but luckily for us, he stays on the right side of watchable, bringing a sense of nonsense to the fantasy closing in all around the central characters. He’s sharp, sullen, but impressively athletic, and the actor actually performed many of the kung-fu stunts himself, which are found during the impressive climax.

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Temple of Doom is easily the funniest of the four films – it even has a cameo from SNL favourite Dan Aykroyd – although many of the jokes are soaked in the views and opinions of the 1930s, mixing the macabre with the public’s fascination with murder and mania. In one inspired sequence, Willie Scott is asked to eat a collection of dishes, each one more disgusting and horrible than the last. It’s possible to discern from this film the director’s fascination with gore and horror, causing some audience members to wince during some of the film’s more uncompromising setpieces. From the whips that slap against the child workers that build the temples from which Mola Ram can lead his Empire, to the turbo-charged mine cart chase that showcases Spielberg’s formidable skill for close-cut camera work.

Like all great comedies, horrors, or action films, there are new things to catch on every repeated viewing: From Club Obi-Wan to the earth-shattering sound the whip makes as it coils around Willie Scott’s sylphlike body, the film is rife with directorial vignettes that surround the world Indiana Jones is unlucky enough to inhabit. Harrison Ford spent much of the shoot recovering from injuries, but that doesn’t detract from what is a supremely confident lead performance.

He’s in better form than Raiders, and he’s yet to hit the fatigue of Last Crusade, making it his finest performance in the trilogy. There are times when he seems to be invoking Rick Deckard, the world-weary detective who spends his time retiring androids in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Indiana Jones is meant to be edgy, unlike the more delicate Han Solo, and the archaeologists’ change from hero to villain makes sense, precisely because of the character’s determination to find worth beyond the realm of spiritual pleasures.

Hypnotised by the regime he sets out to destroy, the central character is corrupted by the power of their messages, swiftly embodying the muscle and meticulous thought process that proves useful for their campaign. And that’s exactly why Indiana Jones is so relatable: He’s the ultimate anti-hero, only fighting the good fight when it suits his personal agendas and needs. And rather than enter the Temple of Doom, he finds himself in a ‘Temple of Opportunity’, emerging from the precipice a more enlightened and better person. He learns the ultimate message, sealing the violence with a sense of ownership and authority that is hard-earned. Temple of Doom is, honest to God, a great movie.

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