If you’re a director in Hollywood today, being a good mimic is a handy skill. Nostalgia is so hot right now that it isn’t enough for familiar characters to return in new releases. The original films must pass before the audience’s eyes. This applies to fandom-flattering productions like J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens but also to films that don't feel like they've come off an assembly line, like Joker, which appropriates '70s Scorsese, or The Batman, which channels Fincher. Meanwhile, directors with distinctive styles and worldviews are fetishized (the depressing Wes Anderson AI trend), take on commercial projects they’re unsuited for, or gravitate to the more adventurous world of streaming.
James Mangold has worked in a variety of genres, with every kind of actor, and delivered often enough that he keeps working. I like a lot of his work, yet would be hard-pressed to identify a Mangold style—Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted and Ford v Ferrari are all fine films with little in common. It seemed like the right call when he was announced as director for the fifth (and reportedly final) Indiana Jones film: malleable enough to imitate Spielberg’s style, but with enough personality and skill to not make the imitation seem slavish.
That’s pretty much what you get in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, in which an 80-year-old Harrison Ford reprises his most famous role as the hat-wearing, whip-cracking adventurer. After years of seeking relics, Indy has become one himself, telling the hippies next door to turn down the Beatles and grumbling at moon landing celebrations. On his final day as a teacher, he’s paid a visit by his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). We know why she’s there—the film begins with a flashback where her father (Toby Jones) and Indy (Ford de-aged) wrest from the Nazis a dial fashioned by Archimedes, one which, according to legend, has the power to turn back time. There’s a long, busy chase sequence in the streets of New York—and before you know it Indy’s in Tangier, complaining about the inconvenience and the danger, even though no one’s buying it.
Waller-Bridge gives the series a welcome jolt. Helena has Marion’s daring, Indy’s resourcefulness and her own brand of recklessness—if the series were to go forward without Ford, so much better that it be her than Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt, killed off between the fourth and fifth films. Mikkelsen is wasted (elegantly) as archetypal Nazi scientist Voller. Jones makes it seem like he was always part of the series (there’s a scene where he clutches the dial like Bilbo with his ring—Ford’s expression in that moment is as sad as Gandalf’s). There’s another long, colourful, very Indy-ish chase in Tangier, before everyone moves to Greece to find the missing half of the dial—Voller has unrevealed but likely sinister plans. John Williams’ music follows every twitch.
And yet. For all the film’s industry and eagerness to please, there’s something missing. It seems churlish to say that thing is Spielberg. Yet that is the difference, the ability to come up with that inevitable perfect detail which makes audiences laugh aloud with the thrill of shared enjoyment. The film is like a well-drilled cover band. You get the hits and you miss the real thing.
The most interesting thing about the film is its final 20 minutes, which swings harder that you might expect. It seems to unnerve the makers themselves, as they reach for familiar surroundings and characters in the final moments. Despite Ford’s quite tender performance, I found myself not overly moved by the sight of ageing Indy. When The Force Awakens brought old Han out for a final time, it felt right. But that was 2015. We get these victory laps all the time now.