Judge Clark Douglas has found the Ark of the Covenant. His wife keeps telling him it's just a George Foreman Grill, but he knows better.
The return of the great adventure.
Indiana Jones has one of the coolest professions any human being could possibly have: he is a college professor. Also, in his spare time, he claims to be archaeologist. However, after examining these films quite closely, I am fairly certain that this is not the case. Indiana Jones is a most excellent treasure hunter with a fetish for whips and a scrappy ability to squirm out of bad situations. For a while, fans of these films were convinced that the films painted a reasonably accurate picture of archaeology. This explains why there are currently so many bitter middle-aged archaeologists who keep waiting for some thrilling adventure to interrupt their sad, lonely, miserable lives. I'm simply assuming all of this, of course. I've never actually met an archaeologist. But if I did, I'm more than certain that he would confirm everything I just said and thank me for being so understanding.
Facts of the Case
First up, let's get one thing straight. Raiders of the Lost Ark has been foolishly renamed Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. That is the official title now, but this is the only time you're going to see me using it. So, for the sake of all things that are good in the world, the film will only be referred to as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Raiders for the remainder of the review.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, The Fugitive) receives a commission from the U.S. government. The Nazis are attempting to find the Ark of the Covenant*, but Uncle Sam wants Indy to try and find it first. Indy receives aid from a resourceful and intelligent woman (Karen Allen, The Perfect Storm). You will not see any large rolling rocks, suspicious monkeys, bad dates, Alfred Molina, or melting heads in this movie…if you are blind.
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy receives a commission from some natives in a small Indian Village. An evil cult has stolen one of the precious Shankara Stones** from the village, but the natives want Indy to get it back. Indy receives "aid" from a young child and the least helpful woman in the world (Kate Capshaw, Spacecamp). You will not see any body parts (with the possible exception of a heart) ripped out of some poor guy who is subsequently burned to death.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy receives a commission from some smooth-talking villain…um, I mean, some guy who seems suspicious but could very well be non-villainous. The Holy Grail* is just sitting somewhere not being found or bothered by anyone, and this man wants Indy to rectify this shameful situation. Indy receives aid from his estranged father (Sean Connery, First Knight), who happens to be an expert on all things Grail. There are absolutely no killer rabbits, knights who say "Ni," or grown men clapping coconuts while pretending to ride horses in this movie. However, there is a knight, who does not utter the word "Ni" at any point (unless he did it so quietly that none of us could hear it, just as his own private joke).
*If you don't know what this is or what significant powers it supposedly possesses, I am not going to tell you. Feel free to check out Wikipedia when you are done reading this review.
**These are not real; they were invented for the film. That seems apparent, as I still haven't quite figured out exactly what these things…um…actually do. I do know that they get all bright and shiny when you put them close to one another. If nothing else, they make lovely decorations if you can get at least two of them. Which, as this movie proves, may be a bit tricky. Plus, as I said, they don't exist.
Harrison Ford was not the first choice to play Indiana Jones, but now it seems impossible to separate the character from the actor. Jones is a character that plays to all of Ford's strengths as an actor, and Ford responds by providing one of the most memorable and likable action heroes of all time. He is gruff, rugged, charming, and generally a bit more confident than he ought to be. Audiences had seen this kind of hero before, but a big part of what sets Indy apart is a level of vulnerability previously uncommon in action heroes. Indy was originally conceived as a James Bond-style character, but in many ways he is the anti-Bond. James Bond is fearless; Indiana Jones turns into a wimp when snakes are around. Bond beds many women and suffers no consequences; the few women Indy manages to land all treat him with varying levels of disdain. Bond generally manages to make it to the end of the movie in the same condition he was in at the beginning; Indy begins to resemble a walking assortment of cuts and bruises by the final act of each film. Yes, Indiana Jones is going to find the treasure, get the girl, and save the day, but it's going to be a real trial. The fact that Indy remains one of the most cheerfully confident heroes despite all of this only makes us love him more.
Three movies, three female leads. However, all Indiana Jones fans know that there's really only one woman who matters. That would be Marion Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen. Marion is strong, resourceful, and just incredibly cool. How many action movie leading ladies get an introduction as good as Marion's? We meet her in a bar (which she owns), engaging in a drinking contest with a three hundred pound man…and winning! When she meets Indiana Jones for the first time in years, she doesn't greet him with tears or a slap or some harsh words, but a ferocious punch right in the jaw. So it's well-established that she is tough as nails and needs to be respected. However, what is equally surprising is that she is also capable of considerable depths of tenderness and feeling. Consider the romantic scene between her and Indy during the third act…it's easily the most touching love scene of the series (unless you count moments between Indy and his father).
A complete 180-degree turn is taken in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where we are introduced to Willie Scott. As played by Kate Capshaw, Willie is a caricature of a damsel in distress. It's a funny idea in concept, but the execution is terrible. Instead of being a comically helpless figure, Willie turns into a shrill and remarkable obnoxious whiner who becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate. Indeed, it's amazing that Indy managed to stand her so long. Willie Scott drags down every scene she is in, and sadly…she is in almost every scene. Temple of Doom is such a well-crafted film that I still love it, but if ever a supporting character came closing to completely destroying a terrific movie…well, it's Willie Scott. Of course, Capshaw would soon become the wife of Steven Spielberg, so at least something good came out of that mess.
Finally, there's Alison Doody as Dr. Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade. Schneider neither has the strength and charisma of Marion or the weakness and obnoxious behavior of Willie. Instead, she's just generally banal. Aside from a couple of plot twists that reveal her in new light, her character is uninteresting and underwritten. However, Doody complains that this is because the relationship between Indy and his father was given so much time, so Sean Connery essentially had what would have been her part. She doesn't hurt the movie, which is the nicest thing I can say about her character.
There are number of sidekicks, companions, and likeable supporting characters that help Indy out along his journey; almost all of them benefit the films greatly. Both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade feature Sallah (John Rhys-Davies, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) and Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot, Trading Places). Sallah is one of Indy's European friends, there to provide comfort, shelter, insight, and humor for Indy in both films. Marcus runs the museum that purchases many of the items Indy collects on his adventures, and also has a vast knowledge of historical information himself. He stays at home in his own comfort zone during Raiders, but provides fish-out-of-water comic relief as he travels with Indy during Last Crusade. I've always treasured both of these performances from Elliot; he brought such a wonderful touch to all of his scenes. It's a shame he's no longer around for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; his presence will be missed.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom gives Indy a child sidekick, Short Round. This was something of a controversial move, as many were uncomfortable with the idea of a child being dragged through the horrible events that take place in Temple of Doom. Others were irritated at the fact that their hero was being saddled with a precocious kid, who would spew cutesy lines like, "Hey lady, you call him Dr. Jones!" Though Short Round has his annoying moments, he's okay in my book.
Finally, there's Dr. Henry Jones, Indy's father. As played by Sean Connery in Last Crusade, the other Dr. Jones is a fascinating, funny, and engaging figure. The relationship between Indy and his father is very well handled, and this is the one area where Last Crusade really shines brighter than the other two. The film has considerably more interest in the feelings and emotions of the characters. Ford and Connery really do capture the relationship between the two men beautifully; you can see vast depths of buried hurt and suppressed admiration in their eyes. Additionally, as James Bond served as the original inspiration for Indy, it's only appropriate that Mr. Bond himself should play the role of Indy's father.
On one of the special features included with this DVD set, Spielberg talks about the fact that each film has two types of villain. There is the primary villain, or the "champagne" villain: a smooth-talking, intelligent baddie who gets to make speeches that start with the phrase, "we're not so different, you and I." Then there is the muscle, the blunt instrument of pure evil that is far more interested in the torture and death of our hero than in verbal manipulation of him. It is my feeling that the latter group is actually considerably more interesting than the former group.
The elegant villains are one of the consistent weak points of the trilogy. They are all just so very dull. They're not annoying enough for us to really hate them, not interesting enough to make us secretly like them, just bland. That applies to the French archaeologist Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman, Hot Fuzz) in Raiders, the bureaucratic Indian politician Chattar Lal (Roshan Seth, Proof) in Temple of Doom, and the silky treasure collector Walter Donovan (Julian Glover, Scoop) in Last Crusade. They aren't too interesting, but the secondary villains certainly are.
For instance, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we have the very evil Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey, Firefox). Just watch him in that scene where he intimidates Marion, his quivering voice suggesting horrible things as he pulls a hot poker out of the fireplace. Temple of Doom has Mola Ram (Amrish Puri, Ghandi), of course, that frightening hulk of a man who has a thing for ripping the hearts out of people. He's magnificently intimidating, with a giant grin that radiates pure evil. Most of the Nazis in these movies are just bodies waiting to be beaten up or shot, but Last Crusade finds one interesting one in Col. Vogel (Michael Byrne, Battlefield Earth), who gets a kick out of telling Indy how people say goodbye in Germany.
The films are first and foremost action films, and each movie offers its own set of tremendous action sequences. Let's begin with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders has a terrific opening sequence, set in a South American jungle. Indiana Jones encounters an array of increasingly creepy warnings of doom (creepy statues, skeletons, booby traps) before being forced to out-run the most intimidating rock you will ever see. There's an exciting fight involving guns, fire, and whiskey inside Marion's bar that would later be blatantly stolen by The Mummy. Comic action appears in the wonderful "basket chase" scene, in which the single funniest moment of the entire series appears (you know the one; it involves an intimidating guy with a big sword). Best of all is that superb scene where Indiana Jones uses a horse to chase down a truck and then does battle with Nazis inside, outside, and underneath the moving vehicle. It remains one of the most impressive action scenes I have ever witnessed; it's no surprise to discover that George Lucas was inspired to make the film with only the idea of this particular scene in mind.
The opening action in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom takes place in a nightclub, where Indy is negotiating a deal with some villainous scoundrels. He is poisoned and sets off a chain of chaotic events in his struggle to recover the antidote. He makes his escape on a plane, but soon Indy and his companions are forced to leap out of the plane…on an inflatable raft. As soon as the raft hits the ground, it turns into an intensely fast-moving sled. It soars off of a cliff and then must negotiate terrifying rapids, and finally this wild ride takes a stop in India. It's a wonderfully constructed sequence that is both amusing and exciting. The rest of the action takes place once Indy, Willie, and Short Round arrive at the Temple of Doom, where they punch, whip, and slice their way out of a seemingly endless series of terrifying situations. Perhaps the single most impressive action scene of the film is that wonderful mine car chase out of the temple, which precedes an entertainingly suspenseful scene on a rickety old bridge. Say what you want about Temple of Doom, but it arguably delivers more impressively than any of these films in terms of providing action-packed thrills.
The action scenes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are exciting enough, but they are more interesting for what they reveal about the characters. The opening scene featuring young Indiana Jones offers up an entire biography of the character in just a few short moments. A motorcycle chase offers some interesting information about the attitudes of Indy and his father toward violence, and a battle in and around a Nazi tank primarily serves as a catalyst for some funny action gags. There's also a boat chase in Venice and an escape from a fiery castle. The final series of obstacles Indy must go through in order to get the Holy Grail requires his brain, not his weapons, once again accentuating the more character-driven nature of Last Crusade. The third film in the series certainly offers its share of excitement, but it is far less concerned with providing non-stop thrills than the previous installments.
One of the fun (and disgusting) elements of the Indiana Jones films has always been all the entertainingly gross creatures appear and equally gross events that take place. Each movie has two key sequences that will make those who easily get sick to their stomach cringe. The first sequence involves a large batch of unpleasant animals, and the second sequence involves someone's unpleasant death. Let's touch on the creatures first. Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with the most obvious choice: snakes. Indy must confront not just a few snakes, but an entire pit full of thousands of slithering, horrifying, and (of course) incredibly deadly snakes. It's a scene that still makes me squirm a bit. Even more squirm-worthy is the wonderful moment in Temple of Doom when Kate Capshaw must work her way through a horde of almost laughably large and ugly bugs in order to save Indy and Short Round from being crushed to death. Finally, in Last Crusade, we get an entire sewer full of rats. Like the action scenes in the movie, this is effective enough, but generally seems to lack the frightening punch of the earlier efforts.
On to the horrifying deaths. Raiders of the Lost Ark has that terrific scene at the end, so cheesy and still somehow incredibly convincing, when the Nazis make God angry and have their faces melted as a consequence. Temple of Doom goes a step further during an equally famous scene, when the cult leader Mola Ram rips the heart out of some poor human sacrifice. Finally, Last Crusade offers up the image of a man aging several hundred years over the course of just a few seconds. Yet again, creepy, but lacking the real jolt of its predecessors.
Location, Location, Location
Each of the films has its own set of exotic locations, which provides some of the fun. The movies typically do not take time out to soak in locations, but rather attempt to stage the drama and action in a manner that highlights the locations. So, there are no pacing issues or pointless location shots (as in many of these international thrillers), and yet we can always tell exactly where we are (unlike, say, The Bourne Ultimatum). Over the course of three films, we visit many diverse locations such as Peru, Nepal, Cairo, Washington D.C., Shanghai, India, Portugal, Venice, Berlin, and Hatay. The international feeling of each film adds a lot of fun to the proceedings, and each location plays a big part in determining the atmosphere of each film.
Composer John Williams has been collaborating with Spielberg for over 30 years, and provided some of his most exciting and entertaining scores for the Indiana Jones films. His music really plays a key role in each film, and Spielberg is a director who doesn't mind cranking the score up at the expense of sound effects. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Williams introduces the iconic "Raiders March," that terrific "duh-da-da-DAH!" main theme that has become inseparable from the image of Indiana Jones. It is a theme that other composers have attempted to mimic in many similar films, but none has captured the memorable thrills of this piece. Additionally, Williams supplies some a gorgeous love theme for Indy and Marion that gets a pretty generous workout. Arguably best of all is the ominous, spine-tingling mystery music written for scenes dealing with the Ark of the Covenant. The theme is slowly developed over the course of the film, and reaches a climax of Biblical proportions in the film's finale.
For Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Williams follows the movie into very dark territory. Yes, the march is still there, there's also a love theme (not quite as memorable as the previous one), and a cute theme for Short Round. However, Temple of Doom is primarily marked by dark, intense, very impressive action and drama. Williams supplies a dark slave march for the captured children, which he does a nice job of developing throughout the film. The music that accompanies the mine car chase is given a brilliant performance; it is one of the most frenetic compositions I have heard from Williams. The most frightening musical sequence is an extended demonic chant accompanied by primitive percussion. It's certainly much darker than usual for Williams, but very good stuff.
The score for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is generally the most accessible of the series, with plenty of warm characters moments and playful action. Williams does not supply a love theme for Indy and Elsa, but he does supply a lovely theme for Indy and his father. A comic action piece is aptly entitled Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra, which cheerfully accompanies the motorcycle chase. An amusingly bombastic theme for the Nazis makes regular appearances, and a mystical theme for the Holy Grail attempts to recapture the magic of the theme for the Ark of the Covenant. Williams writes a mini-score within the score for the sequence featuring young Indy, which features its own unique set of themes and ideas. While I don't think this score is quite as memorable and exciting as the other two, it's nonetheless a very fine film score that is head and shoulders above typical action-adventure efforts.
How Do They Look and Sound?
The DVDs here don't look any different than those contained in the original DVD box set. As far as DVD transfers go, the Indiana Jones movies look and sound terrific considering their age. However, these films are also screaming for a hi-definition transfer. Sure, they look good, but the busy action scenes in particular would just look remarkable in Blu-ray. That said, the DVDs do a nice job of presenting the intentionally old-fashioned look of the films in a very effective manner. Of course, Spielberg touched up a few of the special effects for the original DVD release, and I find those effects ever-so-slightly distracting. They seem sharper and crisper than everything else in the film; they stand out a little too much. Sound is quite solid, with those John Williams scores blending wonderfully with the dialogue and sound effects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have said a lot of very nice things in this review about this wonderful series. However, the odds are very high that you do not need to buy these DVDs. If you are interested in the films, you probably all ready own the previously released Indiana Jones DVD box set. That set contains all three films, a terrific feature-length documentary, and a few good featurettes. This set contains all three films and a few so-so featurettes. The transfers don't appear to be any different than the previous ones. Yes, it's true: they have double-dipped and provided even less supplemental material this time around. Do they not know how the system works? You release bare-bones stuff first, and then you add an increasing amount of special features with each new release. That's why so many people own 50 different DVD releases of The Evil Dead. However, perhaps this set isn't about new features. After all, each DVD comes in a slim DVD case, and they're all packaged in an economic box. So maybe you're just going to have to pay twenty or twenty-five bucks this time around, right? Sorry, no. Retail on this set is a whopping sixty bucks. So, there are three requirements for purchasing this DVD set:
A. You are insane, and don't know any better.
If you are in the third category, let me tell you about the special features you will be getting. Each disc contains three featurettes, which run about 10 minutes each. First off, each movie has a new introduction from Spielberg and Lucas. These are clip-heavy, but interesting. Most amusingly, Spielberg slyly manages to completely wash his hands of Temple of Doom and blame the critical failure of that movie on George Lucas. He even goes so far as to describe himself as "nothing more than George's hired gun on that movie. He knew what he wanted, and he just needed me to direct it."
Raiders contains an appreciation of the original trilogy by the cast of the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ray Winstone informs us that he cried during Last Crusade; not at any of the moments you might expect. Special effects guy Chris Walas discusses the melting face effect in a featurette devoted to that gooey moment. Temple of Doom has a featurette on the creepy critters in all three films, and another one about the different locations. Last Crusade features quick interviews with all three leading ladies from the films, and a much-too-short examination of all the supporting characters. Pretty much all of this stuff (with the exception of the melting face) was covered very well in the documentary on the other DVD set. Finally, there are storyboards, photo galleries, and Lego Indiana Jones game demo/trailer on each DVD. The features are engaging enough, but are by no means enough to merit a purchase. Wait for the inevitable super-amazing box set that will undoubtedly contain enough special features to keep you glued to the couch for a year.
Every film has its share of flaws (some more than others), but these are all terrific movies. In particular, Raiders of the Lost Ark still holds up as a genuine classic. I don't think there is any movie that I watched more often than Raiders…I have seen the film so often that I have memorized most of the dialogue, and the film somehow never grows old no matter how many times I see it. It is a joyous celebration of the movies, a loving tribute to old Saturday-morning adventure serials, and a genuinely groundbreaking piece of cinema history. For me, it is a representation of popcorn entertainment at its finest. This is everything that cinematic escapism should be.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom suffers a serious blow due to the Willie Scott character, but I still maintain that it is a superb action flick. The energetic, non-stop action sequence that takes Indy from a Shangai nightclub to a small village in India is so brilliant: comic, exciting, and inventive. It's not even the best part of the movie. Some people hate the fact that the Indy series got so dark during its second hour. I love it. I love every snake-eating, bug-covered, blood-drinking, heart-ripping minute of it. If the film were not permitted to drop into such marvelously dark areas, the thrill of seeing Indy punch his way back to the sunlight (literally) would not be so exciting.
While I don't get that same sense of joyous excitement while watching The Last Crusade, that doesn't make it the weakest film of the series. What Last Crusade lacks in thrills, it makes up for in thoughtful character moments and gentle humor. It's a touching and lovely movie, and I still find it moving each time I watch it. It is more concerned with being a good father-son story than with being a non-stop thrill ride. It gives the characters time to live and breathe. I would not trade the moments we get to spend with Sallah, Marcus, or Dr. Henry Jones for an extra adrenaline rush or two. The movie has a very elegiac feel at times, and it makes an appropriate ending for this trilogy.
Of course, in just a couple weeks after this review is published, yet another Indiana Jones film is being released. If it is good (which I really hope it will be), then that's wonderful. If it isn't good, we can just lump it in with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Alien: Resurrection and pretend it never happened.
These films represent some of the most entertaining action-adventures ever
committed to celluloid. Temple of Doom and Last Crusade are not
guilty, while Raiders is so good that I am giving it lifetime immunity to
the rule of law, providing protection from future activist Judges who may not
feel the same way I do (I don't think I'm really allowed to do that, but I'm
assuming that no one will challenge it). However, the people responsible for
producing this box set are guilty not only of double-dipping (which earns them
30 days in jail), but also of dangerously incompetent double-dipping (which
earns them 20 years). Court is adjourned.
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