Harrison Ford’s iconic whip-cracking archaeologist literally rode off into the sunset with his dad in the closing moments of 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” So how do you wrap up what is actually the last adventure and somehow live up to an all-time great movie ending?
Therein lies the greatest struggle of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday). Director James Mangold (“Logan”) takes over from Steven Spielberg in this fifth and final outing, following 2008’s underwhelming “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Ford still wears the character’s signature fedora like nobody’s business, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s new Helena Shaw brings refreshing vigor and roguish attitude to a throwback story that feels both wildly bizarre and way too safe.
“Destiny” feels most like a thrilling “Indiana Jones” ride at the beginning, an opening sequence set in 1944 as World War II is coming to an end and the hero’s up to old tricks: slugging Nazis, trying to rescue historical artifacts from Hitler’s goons and lucking his way through perilous predicaments – in this case, saving partner Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) from a train and absconding with the mythical Archimedes Dial.
The film then shifts to 1969, and an older Indy who’s more likely to raid a liquor cabinet than a hidden tomb. His globetrotting days now behind him, Indy weathers personal problems and an uncertain future. On the same day he retires from teaching – and a parade celebrating the recent moon landing rolls through New York City – his estranged goddaughter Helena shows up asking about the dial, which supposedly can find fissures in time. Indy retrieves it from storage, and to his surprise, Helena steals it to sell to the highest bidder, though they’re not the only interested parties: Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), an extremely punchable former Nazi scientist working with the American space program, is an old nemesis who wants to use the dial to change history.
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Of course, Indy catches up with Helena, but they only have one half of the dial, sparking a race between good and bad guys that tends to drag over the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, even when propelled by a fabulous John Williams score. The film misses the Spielbergian twinkle and lightness of previous episodes while borrowing from past treasures, from specific “Raiders of the Lost Ark” callbacks to a Tangier tuk tuk chase reminiscent of the “Temple of Doom” mine cart sequence. One left-field choice is the Archimedes Dial (based on the real-life Antikythera mechanism) as this movie’s prize MacGuffin, which lacks the cultural significance of the Ark of the Covenant or Holy Grail but ties in nicely with the ticking clock of time for Indy (and the guy playing him).
At 80, Ford remains a top-notch action hero, and gives the aging adventurer more gravitas this go-round as Indy’s hit a low point in his life. The actor even gets de-aged for the 1944 opening using special effects: It’s effective most of the time, less so in the busier action bits.
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More often, though, Indy feels like a supporting player next to Helena in his own story. “Destiny” creates a wonderfully conflicting duality between the twosome, as Helena reflects the Jones of “Temple of Doom” who’s all about “fortune and glory” while old Indy’s on his “it belongs in a museum!” kick. But Waller-Bridge plays her ambitions and evolving character so well that she pops off the screen in a more dynamic way. (I would absolutely watch a 1970s-set Helena Shaw Disney+ spinoff series and buy the action figures.)
Mikkelsen’s an obvious choice for a Nazi villain but more than does the job, while Antonio Banderas has a too-small role as Renaldo, an old Indy ally who helps the heroes on a deep dive into a Greek shipwreck. Familiar faces from past movies also make an appearance, including a welcome return by loyal pal Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).
“Dial of Destiny” is a solid Indiana Jones adventure that ultimately dodges the giant boulder of expectations. But as a franchise closer, it’s an anticlimactic affair that, while not a memorably rousing last crusade, at least bids Indy adieu in an emotionally satisfying fashion.