TEXAS, USA — Few things have signaled the one-direction course of recent movie history like the evolution of Harrison Ford. One of the definitive action stars of his time has, along with the likes of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, become a marquee industry statesman of ours; you notice the wrinkles, the graying hair, and you might wish for Ford to enjoy the rest of his days away from the rush of a movie set, because has any movie star ever deserved that more?
And then you attend opening weekend of a major franchise revival – say, “Blade Runner” or “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” – and you realize you’re holding your breath in anticipation of Ford’s return in one of his many iconic roles. No, the voice may be gravelly and the gait a bit slower, but you’ll find precious few things at the movies that pack as mighty a charismatic punch as Harrison Ford. And it gets ever harder to imagine the movies without him. Even at 80, Ford is still an event.
Thank goodness, then, that “Indiana Jones” has remained a strictly big-screen experience even as the property has come under the ownership of Disney and the company’s increasingly streaming-centered agenda. It simply wouldn’t do to watch the action-packed prologue of this dusted-off adventure series’ fifth (and supposedly final) entry on a TV screen, even if the theater more immediately betrays the fuzzy de-aging effects applied to Ford as his heroic historian eludes a fiery death, chases down a speeding train and fights Nazis atop it in the final hours of Hitler’s regime.
It’s a fun and fine sequence, if overlong and murky enough to remind you that, for the first time, it isn’t Steven Spielberg directing an “Indiana Jones” movie (the duties have been passed along to James Mangold). But when the voice of elder Ford is spoken through his de-aged self’s mouth, you remember right away that he is a movie star as appealing for what will come out of his mouth as for when he blasts away at a new-gen stormtrooper or punches a Nazi.
Ford’s right jab remains elite in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” and so it must: The movie might jump a few decades after that prologue, but the Nazis remain many as they wait at the behest of a villainous Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, donning his best seething-baddie poise) to pounce once again. Meanwhile, Indy (his voice matching his physical appearance now) has just retired from academia. But his possession of the titular MacGuffin and the arrival of goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, her rapid-fire snark contrasting nicely with Ford’s finely aged wit) will pit good and evil against each other in the familiar worldly venues of crumbling tombs, international markets and slithery clutches of certain doom.
And also the venue of self-reflection and time’s passage, yes, though in this department Mangold and the film’s four credited screenwriters would have done well to shine off their own conceptual treasures rather than spending so much time raiding familiar series echoes for inspiration. As with prior “Indy” entries, “Dial of Destiny” places emphasis on the weight of personal relationships and the spectacular set piece. But emotional weightiness is lacking, and while this entry occasionally energizes the action with a bit of well-timed comedy, these movies have never felt so complacent in their construction. A Tangier-set car chase – as with the car chase before it, as with the train pursuit before that – provides a glossy stage for Mangold to show off his competence in all areas fast-rushing and pulse-quickening. But in “Dial of Destiny,” at least up until its unabashedly loony finale, competence is more often than not the ceiling rather than a baseline. These sequences eventually also become snooze-inducing, despite John Williams being incapable of creating a dull score to accompany them.
The tough pill (or cup of Kali’s blood) to swallow is you can see the potential, and what might’ve been if Mangold’s movie was as well-considered as his “Logan,” which poignantly sent off Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in what feels now like a dress rehearsal for “Dial of Destiny" of the sending-off-our-heroes kind. One of the most surprising moments in this middling adventure comes when our dear Dr. Jones, whipped back into the frenzy of gunfire and conspiracy, makes his escape by knocking over half a dozen shelves lined with precious artifacts and reducing them to rubble. You wouldn’t have expected our Indy of the “Raiders” or “Last Crusade” era to behave so recklessly, and there’s a bit of a thrill here: Has one of our most enduring heroes arrived at a point where the thing he risked life and limb for doesn’t matter all that much? Certainly he’s never seemed so alone; a separation notice from sweetheart Marion Ravenwood sits on his desk, neighbors are blaring The Beatles at 8 a.m., and these days his students are far more enamored by what awaits in the cosmos rather than under the Earth’s surface.
It feels like these details are set to map an intriguing new direction for the archaeologist with a knack for finding himself at the center of history when all he wants to do is study it. “Dial of Destiny” eventually takes that irony to more fiendishly extreme lengths than the franchise has ever gone before, but otherwise any real thematic intention cracks under the weight of expectations over the course of two and a half hours. “Dial of Destiny” thinks its being clever when it riffs on Indy’s greatest fear by trapping him in a ruin overtaken by eels, but when it becomes hard to even track who’s who in this underwater sequence you’re left lamenting that the film doesn’t put in the legwork to fully earn the payoff of its climax to come.
Most viewers aren’t likely to care, if only because they want to wash the taste of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” out of their mouths 15 years later. But at least that movie had a sense of momentum and touch of lunacy that might’ve benefited the first two acts of “Dial of Destiny,” which – certainly by no fault of Ford’s – labors in convincing us that there’s anything of true wonder to be found here which doesn’t feel like a redux of what’s come before. It looks pretty, but it feels rusty.
As for the star himself, the machinery of charisma has yet to show any wear, and certainly Ford’s rapport with Waller-Bridge is a main attraction as the two experience their own underdeveloped crisis of trust. His performance, informed by decades of staying power and cultural cache, finds a compelling new dimension late in the game that might get you misty-eyed. It’s enough to nearly save the movie – perhaps Indy’s most heroic effort yet – but it’s hard not to wonder what might’ve been fated for “Dial of Destiny” if it didn’t feel like Ford wasn’t punching through a stodgy, substandard story with the same fervor as he punches all those damn Nazis.
"Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" is now in theaters. It's rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, language and smoke. Runtime: 2 hours, 34 minutes.
Starring: Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mads Mikkelsen, Toby Jones
Directed by James Mangold; written by Mangold, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and David Koepp.