It’s not the years, as someone once put it — it’s the mileage. Indiana Jones was feeling that mileage from his very first adventure, 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and in The Dial Of Destiny — purportedly his last outing — he’s feeling the years, too. That seems to be the driving force behind this fifth instalment of this most beloved of adventure series: what happens when even the most indestructible hero runs out of road?
Of all the iconic characters Harrison Ford has dusted off in recent years, Indiana Jones, tenured professor of archaeology who never worried too much about getting his hands dirty, seems to be the one he has the most fun playing. There’s real, rugged, grinning affection in Ford’s now five performances, and a real joy in seeing him back in the fedora and leather jacket. Ford may also have been conscious, too, that the previous attempt at a swansong, 2008’s Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, didn’t quite hit the mark; enough good stuff in it to feel almost underrated, but enough silly stuff (the gophers, the aliens, the fridge) to feel the need for one last crack of the course-correcting whip.
For this first Spielberg-less outing, all the hallmarks of the series are there as you’d hope them to be, lovingly preserved like archaeological treasures: there is an ingenious and elaborate booby-trapped cave system, there is a throwback map sequence, and there are plenty of Nazis, ready for the punching. But there is also some sadness and regret, a man out of time, finally running out of time, and surveying the ruins of his life; a tone that sometimes feels unusually sombre for this kind of blockbuster.
Dial Of Destiny has the kind of final showdown that almost makes the finale of Crystal Skull feel subtle.
That may be the hand of director James Mangold, a filmmaker who has some understanding of making a bittersweet genre pic about a beloved pop-culture icon in the twilight of his years (see also: Logan). He moves confidently through action set-piece after action set-piece, keeping up a frantic pace — but he is clearly at pains to keep track of the man under the hat.
First, though, we flash back to a younger, more self-assured Indy. The film begins, as all good Indiana Jones movies should, in barnstorming fashion: in 1944, at the close of World War II, with an (only mildly uncanny) de-aged Harrison Ford battling the Nazis. He’s aided by fellow academic Basil Shaw (Toby Jones, filling in the bumbling Brit role previously occupied by Denholm Elliott) as they attempt to retrieve the Lance of Longinus, the blade that pierced Jesus. But another, more intriguing artefact catches their eye: the Antikythera, which the Nazis are particularly interested in for its godlike powers. (Sound familiar?)
That opening salvo is terrific, and moves at a frantic lick, which makes the timeline jump to 1969 all the more impactful. Dr Jones now lives in a dirt-cheap New York apartment, on the verge of retirement and self-medicating with booze. He is still a lecturing professor, but only just; in a neat contrast to the enamoured doe-eyed students of Raiders and Last Crusade, his students are bored and uninterested.
Into this unhappy tableau comes his goddaughter (and Basil’s daughter), Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Helena, who sets him off on One Last Quest to find the other half of the Antikythera, and maybe find the spark of adventure he once had. (“This is not an adventure!” Jones actually insists at one point). Waller-Bridge is superb, for her part. If Ford is the cranky, ill-tempered hero, she is the witty, sharp-tongued cynic; like Karen Allen’s Marion in the first film, a Howard Hawksian woman.
Naturally, the Nazis are also on the case. As Jürgen Voller, Mads Mikkelsen is enjoyably hissable — he is, of course, Hollywood’s favourite accent-for-hire, but this is a thoroughly nasty Nazi, one whose racism and arrogance isn’t downplayed, still bitter about past conflicts. “You didn’t win the war,” he snarls at an American at one point. “Hitler lost.”
It doesn’t escape the sometimes-wobbly politics that the series has sometimes been accused of; the return of John Rhys-Davies, a white Welshman, as the Egyptian character Sallah, feels a needlessly thoughtless choice in 2023. And the globe-trotting can occasionally feel a bit MacGuffin-by-numbers: we must find the thing, which leads us to the map, which will help find the other thing.
But then it reaches its final act, and suddenly all bets are off. The script hints at something wild from the off, but you’re never quite sure it’s going to go that wild. Believe us when we say: it goes that wild. It is a true swing for the fences. Dial Of Destiny has the kind of final showdown that almost makes the finale of Crystal Skull feel subtle.
Does it work, though — in a way that Crystal Skull’s climax didn’t? Sort of! It depends if you are willing to go with it. This is a series that has always gestured towards fantasy. It was conceived by Spielberg and Lucas as a homage to their beloved 1940s serials, cinema as pulp, and this bold-as-brass ending fits comfortably into that tradition. Importantly, it feels true to Indy as a character. In the end, it seems to suggest, it wasn’t about fortune and glory at all, but finding your own little corner of history. And Indy, one way or another, has found it.