“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” opens during a flashback to 1944, with a digitally de-aged Harrison Ford being interrogated by Nazis. For a character who has always been something of an anachronism, this prologue feels like a premature spoonful of sugar. It’s as if the film is providing the audience one last glimpse of the hero they’ve always known, before attempting to give that same hero the swan song he deserves.
After the 2008 misfire “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a film that featured Shia LeBeouf as Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, Jones surviving a nuclear detonation inside a refrigerator, and the appearance of literal aliens, it didn’t seem likely fans would ever get a proper send-off for good ol’ Indy. But series director Steven Spielberg stepped aside and made way for filmmaker James Mangold (who helmed the critically beloved “Logan,” a closing chapter for the X-Men’s Wolverine) to gently put one of Hollywood’s greatest action heroes out to pasture. The result is an ambitious and loving character portrait that honors the franchise’s past while never quite matching its majesty, verve, or charm.
The film’s main story picks up in July of 1969, the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Jones is working as a professor at a school where the students have little to no interest in his teachings on the past when the future is right outside their window. Adding to that feeling of lurching irrelevance, Jones is on the verge of divorce with Marion (Karen Allen), living alone in a small apartment and mourning the loss of a loved one to the Vietnam War. The last thing he’s looking for is another adventure. But his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) pops up, needing his help to look for the Antikythera mechanism, the mysterious dial of the film’s title. Her father, Jones’ friend Basil (Toby Jones), believed ancient mathematician Archimedes had figured out how to use the dial to track fissures in time. Helena wants Jones’ help, less because she actually needs it and more because she feels she is owed it for all the years he’s spent ignoring his godfatherly responsibilities.
But the other man after the dial is Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen),”the Nazi who last had it, as seen in the film’s prologue. He’s survived that war and works for NASA now. Having helped Americans get to the moon means he should feel good about the future he’s aided in building, but Voller is still obsessed with the past. In his modern-day introductory scene, he tells a Black hotel concierge, “…you all didn’t win the war. Hitler just lost.”
The ensuing chase for the dial ticks many surface-level boxes for what audiences have come to expect from an Indiana Jones picture. Ford and Waller-Bridge replicate some of the screwball banter Jones and his prior love interests would share between action bits (though thankfully minus the romantic tension, given the age gap and semi-familial bond.) Waller-Bridge is as delightful in her role as “Fleabag” fans might expect, but Mikkelsen runs away with the picture. His understated but haunting performance as Voller is an absolute standout.
Mangold keeps the intensity and momentum going, ensuring only a little screen time passes between set pieces. There are plenty of Nazis getting punched in the face as well, which is perhaps the most enjoyable side of these films. But truth be told, as smart and passionate a storyteller as Mangold is, he’s not the visual maestro Spielberg always has been. Every chase, fight, and fantastical excursion into the unknown feels like a particularly spirited karaoke performance. But no matter what kind of vocal chops your drunk best friend possesses when he belts “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he’s still not Freddie Mercury. There’s just something flat and wanting in the way Mangold stages the proceedings that makes it hard not to long for Spielberg’s effortless dynamism.
But Mangold proves adept at the beats between the big bangs. Ford looks pretty comfortable within the world set up for him, providing moment after moment of earnest, compelling drama. Mangold doesn’t fully come alive as an action filmmaker until the film’s revelatory third act, with its thrilling and awe-inspiring climax. But it only plays so well because of the stronger, quieter work he and Ford provide throughout.
“Dial of Destiny” still leaves a lot to be desired. It’s hard not to feel cheated by the missed opportunity to explore this time period better. There’s something so pedestrian in the way he uses the political fury of the late ’60s as little more than a convenient backdrop for the film’s action. A set piece runs through a protest, but there’s little explored in the juxtaposition of Jones’ WWII-era prime and this more politically complex time, not to mention the hotbed of implications from “ex-” Nazis working on the space race. One wishes he would have further mined the setting for dramatic intrigue or to lend more gravitas to Jones’ arc. Instead, it feels like a big-budget romp set in this time, but more concerned with the fictional hero at its core than the backdrop he’s been placed in front of.
“Dial of Destiny” is about as good as nostalgia-driven popcorn pop art seems to get these days, but it’s difficult not to yearn for more from projects like this, however entertaining they are.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” opens Friday, June 30, in theaters everywhere.