Early on in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy turns to his soon-to-be love interest and his newfound sidekick – a singer in Shanghai's Club Obi Wan (Kate Capshaw) and a scrappy pickpocket (Ke Huy Quan), respectively – and intones, "I think we got a big problem." He's not kidding: the warning comes toward the end of a miraculous 20-minute opening sequence during which Dr. Jones gets poisoned while trying to exchange the remains of a dead emperor for a legendary diamond, plays floor hockey for the diamond and the antidote, impales someone on a kebab, crashes through a window behind a rolling metal gong, and stows away in a plane full of poultry only to have the pilots ditch and take the only parachutes with them. He then proceeds to leap out of the plane on a rubber life raft, which crashes off a cliff and careens down some vicious Indian whitewater. "Big problem" doesn't quite describe it; the torrent of obstacles and challenges that Spielberg and Lucas hurl at their hero in the first reel of this first sequel seems downright cruel. But their unkindness aside, the barreling momentum, brilliant staging, and breezy nonchalance of Temple of Doom's opening evoke something rarely found in Raiders of the Lost Ark and more rarely still in the rest of Steven Spielberg's career: a sense that Spielberg -- the master, the magician -- is at play.
It's commonly accepted that Temple of Doom is less memorable, and less breathtakingly iconic than Raiders. Instead of Nazis and Ronald Lacey's terrifying Arnold Toht, we get an anonymous pagan cult vaguely bent on world domination, and a sneering, megalomaniacal chieftain who never quite achieves genuine menace. The Ark of the Covenant, universally known and desired, is replaced with a magic rock. No doubt the second film has less heft, less power; it feels less like an epic, eternal adventure. But some of that is weight lifted off of the series' shoulders. Temple of Doom isn't as important, as great, or as awe-inspiring as its predecessor, but the franchise has never felt this loose or this effortlessly self-effacing. Its lowered ambitions give it the freedom occasionally to be – dare I say it? – more fun.
Not coincidentally, Temple of Doom is also a great place to go if you want to be amazed by Spielberg's mastery of the form. Consider the incredible rhythm and pacing of the dinner scene, where exposition is dispensed at one end of the table as Indy talks shop with the Prime Minister, while at the other end, Capshaw's Willie Scott contends with an increasingly more disgusting barrage of eastern delicacies culminating in a dessert of "chilled monkey brains" eaten out of the severed head. The scene is perfect: it advances the plot without getting mired in dialogue, and earns laughs without degenerating into camp or betraying the films' tone. Recall, too, Indy and Willie's genius courtship ("Five minutes!"), which ends with him bursting into her chambers in search of assassins only to be met with her cry of "Oh, be gentle with me, be gentle with me!" What a hilarious and efficient way of dealing with the romantic B-story, avoiding sentimentality and allowing the film to pitch forward from there without missing a beat. (What follows, of course, is the great ceiling trap sequence.) Much of Temple of Doom is pop filmmaking at its finest.
As for Indy himself, he's in terrific form here. Though Temple of Doom has him pulling off some of the series' most wildly implausible stunts and escapes, it also finds him at his most likable and relatable. Things don't come easy for him here, as they too often did in Last Crusade – he gets hurt and suffers rounds of bad luck; most importantly, he spends much of the movie dragging along a shrill, embarrassing harpy in the form of Willie Scott. A lot of people despise Willie, and it's true that she can be grating, but she's vital to the film precisely because it's fun to watch Indy get irritated along with us. She makes him vulnerable, and presents more of a crisis than all the Nazis and cultists in the world put together. "You're insulting them, and you're embarrassing me," he mutters through clenched teeth when she attempts to decline the destitute Indian villagers' offering of food, and he seems to feel more pain in that moment than during any of the beatings he's ever received. And his exasperated retort to her hysterical "There are two dead people out here!" during the ceiling trap sequence ("There are gonna be two dead people in here!") is timeless action hero sarcasm.
Unlike Last Crusade, which starts to drag as Indy attempts to work out his daddy issues, Temple of Doom never slows down; I made admiring mention of the furious opening sequence, but the film very nearly maintains that pitch throughout its 115 minutes. The third act offers up one climax after another, each more gleeful and imaginative than the last. The mine train chase is a marvel that might have passed muster in a 2008 summer blockbuster; to see it in a nearly 25-year old film is astonishing.
Assessed coldly, Temple of Doom seems to suffer from some classic symptoms of Sequelitis: it wants desperately to be louder and faster, adds a cute sidekick, and leans hard on action over plot. But somehow, it all works to the film's advantage. Temple of Doom is one of Spielberg's finest moments as a technician, and Indy's as an action hero. Certainly it's an experience different from the incomparable Raiders, the sappy Last Crusade, and the complicated Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But in its own way, it's a treasure. It represents the franchise at its most relaxed, freewheeling and charming.