While it's not without a few problems, I feel that this is a greatly underappreciated entry in the original Indiana Jones trilogy. Even by its own director. I mean sure it has notable flaws. Some even dare to suggest it's worse than the ill-guided forth instalment that I promised not to bring up again. But their kind of course needs a good slap in the face for blasphemy. Some enjoy Temple as much as the others, or even consider it to be the greatest Indy adventure, though there will always complaints that come up regarding two elements which seem to be given far too much attention, as I will discuss.
But this is an example of how to do a sequel right; where prior success with a previous release allowed for a lot of freedom. Since Raiders was a hit they had no reason to rehash it, so a huge amount of creativity was poured into the follow up in terms of both set pieces and fantasy visuals, and in that department it is unmatched.
While the original story has a pretty comic book tone overall, there was always a kind of general reality to the adventure, up until the third act of course. Tombs probably exist, sinister Nazi agents were a thing. However this time these details are pushed to their logical extreme in terms of pure over the top escapism. The rules are thrown out so we can marvel at the boldness of it all. The snake pits and boulder escapes last time around were pretty silly, so here it's all taken one step further. There are lakes of fire, labyrinthine mine cart tunnels, and painted murals that exist just to hide assassins. It revels in this kind of exaggerated excess.
By the time the heroes reach Pankot Palace the real world has been left behind altogether, if you can call the sets used to depict China accurate at all. There are no pit stops at the university here. Instead we get a fresh intro set piece which references Indy's inception, with a James Bond moment in which he wears a tuxedo right out of Goldfinger. Of course poisoned champagne and flaming kebab skewers soon bring us back to the expected chase sequences and sight gags of a Raiders sequel. It soon gets into fifth gear, despite a few trips and stumbles at the start.
But to get those little pitfalls out of the way, since at this point the supporting cast is introduced. Yes, Kate Capshaw's Willy Scott is shrill and grating almost immediately. However beyond the opening car chase and the campsite antics she doesn't get that much to do which isn't just part of being a comedy side kick. Her most irritating moments take up maybe five minutes of the film and are easily overlooked. Besides, some of the best moments of the story include her, in what is one of the funniest scripts in the series. There are always more laughs that winces involved where it's the sexual tension skit or the whole insect nightmare and death trap set piece. A lot of it is just part of what is essentially an archetypal romantic interest in this kind of story. But in a way that's why it works; she isn't just Marion all over again.
It's new like a lot of the elements here. They went in a different direction for once with an emphasis on horror and lesser known occult objects. There's little to see in terms of the film makers playing it safe. Villains are allowed to be villainous so we can relish their grisly deaths, call backs to the previous story are brief or played against expectations, and overall there's a sense of just seeing what will work and throwing it out there. The palace dining sequence may be pretty dated as an example of 80s humour taken too far with what should have been a throwaway gag about foreign food, but they probably had fun doing it. Just listen to the sound design they used whether it's the infamous snake surprise or the chewing gum jaw drop gag. I doubt any offence was intended, and it's a fun if juvenile way to stop exposition from becoming too dry. It's called The Temple of Doom, so I'm pretty sure nothing here is to be taken seriously.
The rest of the cast do a fine job, and while young companion Short Round may feel like an odd choice initially, again it's something new that adds another dimension to the hero who gets to play a father figure. If there's any problem with this it's the prequel aspect since setting the story in 1935 doesn't really serve a purpose and none of this ever brought again. Maybe the idea was set up in pre-production and they forgot to flesh it out. Indy isn't that money minded here, and in later outings he's just as interested in capturing ancient artefacts without listening to warnings about the supernatural.
Elsewhere the bad guys are despicable in all new ways with Amrish Puri totally hamming it up as the human sacrifice loving Mola Ram. His whole child slave labour operation and his ideas for world domination are totally absurd, and the story is more entertaining for it. Sure he could have used his adult drones and aimed to rule just Asia, but this all fits better. The whole character is summed up in one brief shot where he escapes by falling into an escape hatch on the floor via the magic of editing alone. He throws his own men to alligators and grins like a maniac with glee, that I can always forgive the fact the species doesn't exist in this region.
The ensemble is filled out by the likes of Roshan Seth as the charming prime minster and evil stooge Chattar Lal, as well as Stanley Kubrick regular Philip Stone as colonialist and last minute plot convenience Captain Blumburtt. These are not well rounded characters by any means but again it feels right within the material. This is a story in which the serial inspirations of the title character are most apparent with escapes from death in every chapter and near misses around every corner. It wouldn't hold up without a few eye popping moments of action and adventure, and there are none more spectacular than here.
The one moment Steven Spielberg is vocally proud about (beyond marrying the leading lady) is the spiked booby trap room our heroes face after the equally ridiculous bug tunnel. The design of the thing is pure nonsense and it apparently operates through movie magic alone. The music and visual combo is rivalled only by the truck chase in Raiders, and this comes pretty close. Like the conveyor belt fist fight during the finale it's a cartoon like time expanding sequence full of little touches that keep the momentum going. The musical stings that accompany things like Indy grabbing Willy's hand through the wall or his 'we are going to die' face all add to the levels of fun.
It also has a sense of pacing that follows the whole story along right up until the literal cliff hanger ending. And of course I have to mention the mine cart which chase goes without saying; what a piece of work. Beyond a few moments where the compositing is obvious, there's no way to see how it's all done without looking at behind the scenes footage. The use of models and sets lines up perfectly to create the standout action scene. Combined with another big scale John Williams score there's nothing quite like it, whether it's the simple bridge of death track or the grand marching theme. Like many aspects of the film his contributions are outstanding.
But ultimately it was still deemed too dark and too mean spirited, so both the budget and the imagination levels were reduced for the next film in the series. Somehow fully reconstructed Nazi rallies were considered a lighter touch. Of course Crusade is still a classic in its own way, but I feel as if the law of diminishing returns still applies here. The attempts to make it look and feel just like the original are too much, unlike this which exists as its own thing, in bubble of unrivalled creativity. As an original action movie, and as a fantasy adventure story, this is the best kind of sequel you can get.