I love it. In fact, I might love it better than Raiders of the Lost Ark
. The two films are more different than I expected, given that as a child I thought they were identical, but there are areas where Temple of Doom clearly outdoes Raiders.
Firstly, the action is more fast and furious. This isn't a trivial point, since Indiana Jones flicks are action movies. Raiders has a kick-arse opening with Alfred Molina and South American tomb-robbing, but after that it slows down and gets almost sedate for pretty much the first half of the film. There's nothing wrong with that, but look at Temple of Doom. Bloody hell. It grabs you by the throat with Shanghai gangsters for the first twenty minutes and then never lets up. For two hours. The Shanghai material is the best stretch in the film, in fact, topping itself with adventure upon adventure until you're a puddle of drool as our heroes jump out of the plane and then meet THE CLIFF. My childhood notion of Indiana Jones films never letting you go comes more from Temple of Doom than it does from Raiders.
Raiders clearly has a better last act, though. Raiders actually has a story and characters who want stuff. Temple of Doom just has mine cars and a rope bridge. I'm also not sure that Spielberg's directorial touch is quite as assured in that last act, with some shots seeming to be missing from the sequence where children escape and Indy's about to get beaten up by a giant (again). Spielberg himself isn't fond of this film, incidentally.
However you can't deny that it's all-out on the action. The first cut had too much. To quote Spielberg... "After I showed the film to George, at an hour and 55 minutes, we looked at each other. The first thing that we said was, 'Too fast'. We needed to decelerate the action. I did a few more matte shots to slow it down. We made it a little bit slower, by putting breathing room back in so there'd be a two-hour oxygen supply for the audience."
Secondly, it's funnier. Raiders was a ton of fun, but Temple of Doom is a comedy and it's all thanks to Kate Capshaw. I think she's magnificent and it's disappointing to hear her call her role "not much more than a dumb screaming blonde." She has one clunky moment ("Down there; are you crazy?") and she doesn't milk her gold-digging for enough sleaze, but otherwise she's hysterical. How do you follow Karen Allen? Answer: you don't try. Capshaw's character is a whining, self-obsessed liability with delusions of irresistibility. We should hate her, but we don't. Instead she's glorious. She's the audience, but funny because she's so rubbish at everything and almost proud of it. How can you not love the moment when she drops Indy's gun out of the car and then shouts at him that she's broken a nail? The scene where she's got to save Indy and Short Round from the spiked pit trap is my favourite in the franchise... and incidentally gives Ford his funniest line too. "Willie, WE are GOING to DIE!!!"
Then there's Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). If you don't love 1980s kid sidekicks, you have no soul. Ke Quan is my hero. "Okey-dokey, Dr Jones. Hold on to your potatoes!" When Indy's brainwashed and Willie's being lowered into lava, it's Short Round who saves everyone. There's a throwaway moment where he beats up five adults single-handedly with taekwondo. The poker game where he and Indy accuse each other of cheating was improvised by Ford and Ke Quan. Short Round loves Indy and will sometimes imitate him, yet is effectively his bodyguard and will frequently tell him what he should be doing.
It's the odd one out of the Indy movies. No university, no America, no Marcus Brody, Sallah, Ravenwoods or Sean Connery. I like this. It's also pleasingly non-white. The only Caucasian faces are Ford, Capshaw and Philip Stone as a British Army captain, who'd have been David Niven if he hadn't died before filming. When the British Army turns up at the end, they've been called in by the Maharajah and all the soldiers under Stone are Indian. Furthermore all the Caucasians are knowledgeable about Eastern culture and the only one who's ever insensitive (Capshaw) gets repeatedly ridiculed for it. Indy speaks everyone's language and respects their history and customs. Stone knows India and he knows what he's talking about. Even Capshaw can deliver Cole Porter numbers in Mandarin (which is awesome) and loves Shanghai.
I love the fact that in an otherwise Judeo-Christian franchise, Indy can get involved with Hindu mysticism and have it be real. Mola Ram's long-term plans include overthrowing the Hebrew god and I'd love to know what that would mean in the Indyverse. Are multiple religions all literally true? Are the Norse gods still knocking around somewhere?
In fairness, Spielberg couldn't film in India because its government found the script racist and offensive. (This explains why the "Indian" villagers speak Sinhalese and look like Sri Lankans. It's because they are.) The gross-out comedy banquet is unrealistic, although the criticism of the film's evil goddess Kali overlooks the point that the historical Thuggee (who were wiped out just as the film says) really did worship Kali and kill people for her. Personally I think this is exactly as "racist" as is, say, the character of Fu Manchu, which is to say "not". It has lurid and memorable villainy (Mola Ram), but there's far more to it than that. (Note also that those Shanghai gangsters at the beginning beat Indy, whose "victory" is simply to escape alive.)
There's a perception that it's a nasty, mean, cruel movie. Spielberg said, "I wasn't happy with Temple of Doom at all. It was too dark, too subterranean and much too horrific. I thought it out-poltered Poltergeist
. There's not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom." Me, I think that's bullshit and I find it heartwarming. To me, it seems humanist and in some ways reminds me of Doctor Who. I admire its respect for other cultures and the way in which one of Indy's most important heroic traits is that he's clever, culturally sensitive and knows stuff. It has a relatively low body count, whereas Indy in Raiders killed and killed. You don't have to kill villains, since a burning torch can redeem them. Finally and most importantly, there's the fact that Indy doesn't care about the diamonds in the Sankara stone and goes back for the children. "He says they stole their children."
Its treatment of romance is almost Children's Film Foundation, by the way. Indy and Willie's bedroom possibilities get played for gags throughout, until they get a kiss right at the end... at which Short Round says "uh-oh" and covers his eyes.
Mola Ram is of course straight from a horror movie (and I'm aghast that my DVD has cut the most explicit shots of him tearing out that guy's heart) and the film isn't afraid to be gruesome in other ways, but I like that. Amrish Puri is colossal, bringing a ton of screen presence with surprisingly little help from the script. As a child I never liked the "Indy gets brainwashed" part of the film, but it doesn't last that long and it certainly makes us more scared of the villains. If we really must talk about family-friendliness, Temple of Doom is more lurid, but Raiders is more brutal. I love both, of course... although that said, there's a bit I blinked at here where Indy whacks someone with the jagged edge of a saw.
Oh, and in being a prequel to Raiders, it has a huge character arc for Indiana himself. At the start, he's basically Belloq. He's in it for the money and selling treasures to gangsters. Later, for a while Mola Ram's blood-drink turns him into someone who doesn't care about anything good at all. It's only when he decides to stand up for the children that we see him become the better man we saw in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Goofs #1: how did all that water roaring down the tunnels at Indy get past the lava chasms?
Goofs #2: why didn't the metal cage melt in the lava?
It has the "you must be kidding me" bit where Indy grabs his hat. It has elephants. It has India, one of the greatest countries in the world. It has Capshaw comedy. "You haven't been able to take your eyes off me!" It's really quotable. It has Short Round. If only it had a proper third act, I'd be giving it a walkover against Raiders. I might love it the most of all the Indy films.
"I hate the water and I hate being wet and I hate you."