Let us put one worry to rest. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, premiering to much hoopla at Cannes, is the best film in the series for 15 years. It counts as a sort of compliment to say that James Mangold’s film – until a gleefully absurd ending – plays like just another episode in a creaky unpretentious romp. After all, the inspirations for Raiders of the Lost Ark were the cheapo film series that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew up with.
The ill-considered (deep breath) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, from 2008, tried too hard to satisfy the demands of 21st-century event cinema. The new film is content to chug along for most of its duration. We have lived with worse.
Those berating the lack of Nazis in Crystal Skull will be appeased by a long opening sequence featuring a young Indiana Jones (an impressively deaged Harrison Ford) trying to wrestle the eponymous dial – a device that could hold the key to time travel – from Mads Mikkelsen’s properly appalling Jürgen Voller. A quarter of a century later, man is landing on the moon while Dr Voller, once a Nazi, now part of the US space programme, is plotting how to get the thingummy back and change history. Somewhere in here, Phoebe Waller-Bridge enters as Indy’s incorrigible goddaughter Helena, a genius and a crook.
Never mind all that. The plot is hokum of the cheesiest hue, but the screenwriters – John-Henry Butterworth and David Koepp take credits with Mangold – know that hokum is the mulch in which this franchise germinates. Though utilising too much (far too much) of the era’s computer-generated imagery, Dial of Destiny is fustily old-fashioned throughout. People get shot dead all over the place. Mikkelsen smokes an actual cigarette. They even invite the Welshman John Rhys-Davies to reprise his role as a dubiously made-up, fez-wearing Egyptian. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else in today’s big-budget franchise cinema.
It doesn’t take long for Indiana Jones to be dragged back into implausible pursuit. The horseride through the streets and subways of New York City – actually Glasgow, of all places – would be less fun if it were less absurd. Later the chase moves to tuk-tuk taxis in Tangiers. Through it all Ford wears the contented look of a man who knows a body double will be ready if he has to do anything so strenuous as climb a stepladder. The film-makers don’t crack the problem of Jones’s age. They don’t really try. They just encourage him to punch the Nazis with a gusto few men half his age could muster. He doesn’t even get an “Oh, I’m getting too old for this” moment. Never mind that. Here comes another stupid chase through a computer-rendered version of an exotic location.
As the film goes on, the focus on uninteresting puzzles becomes a bit tedious. Nobody cares about the missing piece of the thing that might open cracks in the space-time continuum. By the time Waller-Bridge is tiptoeing over a rickety rope bridge in a subterranean cavern, we seem to have gone full circle and caught up with Indiana Jones’s immediate descendant Lara Croft. We shan’t spoil what happens next, but, should you find it preposterous, remember that the first film ended with the Ark of the Covenant revealing its apocalyptic powers. We sometimes forget the later films exist in that same universe.
Nobody with a brain in their heads will compare Dial of Destiny favourably to the first three films. There is a sense throughout of a project struggling to stand beneath the weight of its history. But Mangold, director of Logan and 3.10 to Yuma, knows how to keep his foot on the pedal. The re-creations of the 1960s vistas are gorgeous. The agreeable cameos keep coming. Think of it as one of those halfway decent David Bowie albums from the 1990s. You like it well enough when it comes out, but a few years later you again find yourself reaching first for Aladdin Sane or Low. Or Temple of Doom. Or Last Crusade.