It’s 1969 and time has finally caught up with Indiana Jones. When he’s not napping in a bourbon-induced fug, he’s boring his students to sleep, counting down the hours to retirement. It seems that the days of the once legendary archaeologist’s adventures are behind him, until the daughter of an old friend arrives to drag the old man into one final hurrah.
“It ain’t the years, honey, it’s the mileage”, Indy (Harrison Ford) once quipped. Fifteen years since the last instalment and a damn long way from Raiders of The Lost Ark, it turns out it’s both. After a less than glowing reception at its Cannes premiere and mixed reviews decrying this fourth sequel as an empty facsimile of its predecessors, The Dial of Destiny seemed fated to be yet another poor choice of belated sequels.
So it’s curious that, for this reviewer at least, The Dial of Destiny starts with a prologue that easily stands up against the classic trilogy, is often disarmingly poignant and never less than entertaining. Much of this is down to Ford, who has always excelled at bringing depth and charm to a character who on paper is fundamentally little more than a silhouette. The 1944-set prologue, featuring a convincingly if imperfectly de-aged Ford, feels like a lost Indy film from the 1990s, as Ford punches, shoots and slips his way through dozens of Nazis to recapture a stolen treasure that will become the film’s MacGuffin. Director James Mangold’s action direction lacks the absolute precision and push-pull tension of Spielberg at his height, but Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography nails the texture of the original films (far more so, it has to be said, than the theatrical release of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
Nor is there significant disappointment when, skipping forward to 1969, man has landed on the moon and Indy is at the bottom of a bottle, Marion (Karen Allen) having divorced him. Indy is all set for retirement and, presumably, oblivion, until long-forgotten goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) arrives in his class, daughter to his late comrade Basil (Toby Jones), with whom he once sought Archimedes’ antikythera, said to point the way to fissures in time. Naturally, Helena isn’t the only one looking for the device and before long a group of exiled Nazis (who else) are hot on their heels, after the device so that they can rewrite history.
Cue globetrotting, action set pieces, tomb raiding and an utterly bonkers ending that is paradoxically unlike anything the series has before attempted and at once in keeping with its themes. The standout set-piece – a horseback chase in the middle of a New York parade – is thrilling but comes early in proceedings and aside from that ending, there’s little new to add to Indy’s pantheon of peril. As mentioned above, Mangold’s action chops are more than competent but lack the precise thrills and spills of Spielberg’s classics.
Too often, sequences are shot in close up and scene geography can be muddled, though as always returning composer John Williams keeps us right and the beats hit when they count. Moreover, for something as mindbogglingly catastrophic as Nazis rewriting history, there’s an odd lack of stakes to the plot, and as the climax approaches there’s never a sense that head baddie Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), and number two Klaber (Boyd Holbrook) are close enough to getting what they want to create adequate tension.
The ending seems destined to be the series’ new ‘fridge’ moment, while it’s somewhat debatable whether the darker emotional moments are fully earned or make sense within the context of a series that is defined by its escapism. It seems that along with its hero, the series has softened with age, with little of the nastiness of the older films and a disappointing dearth of melted faces and ripped-out hearts, at least of the literal kind. Yet with this softening comes a sincerity to the film that makes its shortcomings feel trivial by comparison. Ford and Waller-Bridge muster a father-daughter chemistry that works in the lighter moments of bantering as well as a few disarming sequences that take the series to new emotional places without ever pulling the film too far away from the core thrills of adventuring.
The Last Crusade will always be the natural ending to the series, but if we must have another last one – ignore the naysayers – Dial of Destiny is about as fitting a final entry as we could hope for, if a minor one. Harrison Ford has always been Indiana Jones; the film’s best surprises come from his ability to bring new dimension and melancholy to the role that has defined him, while remaining just as charming and dashing as ever as the ultimate adventurer. Mangold’s capper may not reinvent the wheel, nor does it match the sheer brilliance of Spielberg’s original three, but this is a sweetly melancholy tribute to one of the great screen icons.