There’s a certain vibe that audiences have come to expect from the iconic Indiana Jones movies. Pulling from old adventure serials, they always carried an air of exciting treasure hunting and bold action sequences that delighted moviegoers. For staging such old-school thrills, Steven Spielberg’s saga always felt like it reflected the past in exaggerated yet compelling ways. The original trilogy took place in the 1930s, crafting tales of Indy battling Nazis in search of supernatural treasures. The 2008 film, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, progressed to the 1950s, when Jones fought the Soviets and unearthed a mystery of alien tech.
Now we’ve come to The Dial of Destiny, set in 1969. During this time, there was a lot to play with: the moon landing, anti-war protests, and revolutionary movements. Yet director James Mangold, the first to helm a Jones movie without Spielberg, reverts to Indy’s old nemesis of Nazis. Even the gruff and experienced Indiana Jones seems tired of these guys for being played by a haggard and less-spirited Harrison Ford. This time, his donning of the hat and whip feels like a return to form and more like one more errand to run before The Courtship of Eddie’s Father comes on.
In this adventure, Indy is flung back into adventure by his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She’s a thief specializing in pilfering rare artifacts for auction and uses Indy’s connections with her father’s history to track down the biggest find yet. Archimedes’s Dial is rumored to possess powers of manipulating time if fully assembled. Thus begins a quest to solve ancient puzzles, traverse tombs, and stay one step ahead of the violent Nazis seeking them out.
The lead Nazi seeking this treasure is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor not known for hamming up his roles. The whole tone of the film feels embodied by this stock bad guy as Mikkelsen plays this role so believably and straight that it’s a bit of a bore. Sure, he’s a threat to Indy, but no more than any other treasure-seeking villain without any memorable moments. His ultimate goal isn’t even all that compelling, doomed to fail as much as opening the Ark of the Covenant with the many variables not considered.
There are a lot of Indiana Jones ingredients in this film. There are car chases through markets and daring fights on a train. Old friends pop up again in the form of John Rhys-Davies delivering some exposition and Karen Allen as the love interest rekindling the Indy romance that has apparently dampened over time. A plucky kid is tagging along (Ethann Isidore), and the standard henchmen of the trigger-happy assassin and oversized brute are present. And yet they never mix well, making this film feel more like a lesser clone than a continuation.
The vibe is vacant in this film with its lack of creative sequences and compelling characters. Jones and Shaw have so little time to connect in their relationship that there is rarely a moment to feel that bond of a father and daughter. Nearly all of their dialogue is strictly business, where Shaw’s first personal interaction with Indy concerns the MacGuffin.
But therein lies the flaw with staging an Indiana Jones film this way: It’s not about the treasure with all its lore, but the journey to that discovery. It doesn’t bode well for a film running 2.5 hours where there’s never a moment to take in the trees instead of the final destination. This results in a film that feels like it’s rushing so hard that there’s never a moment to appreciate the paranoid Toby Jones or the crafty Antonio Banderas playing friends of Indy. There’s not even all that much excitement in such scenes as Indy racing through a city-wide protest on horseback or narrowly avoiding market stands with a rousing car chase. Even the ultimate twist of the Dial that leads the heroes and villains to the most fantastical of locations feels like too little too late.
Dial of Destiny has all the unfortunate qualities of an Indiana Jones film that doesn’t feel like an Indiana Jones movie. In the film’s way of pushing and pulling between delivering classic theatrics and updating the material for its 1960s setting, it turns into a mundane trip for the weathered adventurer. Considering the first shot of the old Jones in this film has him shirtless, drunk, watching HR Pufnstuf, and screaming at his loud and youthful neighbors playing music, it’s not as fun to watch Indy go down this old road again. That fedora should’ve been hung up if this is all that could be mustered with its dusting.