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Lara Croft: Tomb Raider   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Simon West
Writers: Simon West, Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Noah Taylor, Iain Glen, Daniel Craig, Leslie Phillips, Mark Collie, Rachel Appleton, Chris Barrie.

Review by Rob Vaux

I had a lot of concerns going into Tomb Raider. Having never played the video game, I wondered: did I have the necessary background to appreciate this? Was my knowledge sufficient to parse the subtle thematic nuances it would no doubt offer? Could my inexperienced sensibilities read the dense layers of a character as sophisticated as Lara Croft? Thankfully, the filmmakers weren't about to leave anyone out in the cold, and included both a surprisingly convoluted plot and the philosophy to ensure that it didn't matter a whit. You can have plenty of fun poking colossal holes in the story of Tomb Raider, though that's clearly not the point of a movie like this.

The surprise is its failures in the Loud Noises And Shiny Things department -- not that it exhibits video game sensibilities but that it does so with a curious lack of energy. Director Simon West embraces the pixilated world of Lara Croft with glum, workmanlike competence: hardly the attitude for a would-be roller coaster. Oh, he gives it all a decent look: gorgeous sets, nice special effects, and a high-tech fantasyland for his heroine to inhabit. But there's very little fun involved, no excitement or adrenaline or pop. It feels mannered and paced, with all the spontaneity of a Macy's parade. Video games may thrive on measured regularity, but a summer action movie needs a little more zest that this one can muster.

At least the most important element is an unqualified success. No one else could possibly play Lara Croft as well as Angelina Jolie, a human Barbie doll with the right combination of physical skills and eyebrow-arching mischief. Croft lives in an opulent mansion full of all kinds of toys, and fills her days speeding off to the far corners of the globe in search of buried treasure. She even has a pair of stalwart sidekicks (including a grungy tech geek, clearly a stand-in for the video game's legions of fans) and a wanker of a villain (Iain Glen) to cross swords with. Naturally, the film highlights her (ahem) physical assets nonstop, but Jolie never lets herself be limited to a jiggle show. Her grinning sense of fun elevates her above the rest of the film, and should at least give fans their money's worth. (She also manages an English accent quite well -- possibly the only real characterization necessary for the part.)

Unfortunately, the rest of Tomb Raider never quite catches her joie de vivre. Spurred on by the spirit of her dead father, Croft sets out in search of a mystical artifact that can "unlock the power of time itself." Her foes work for the mysterious Illuminati, an ancient organization that has waited five thousand years to claim the same prize she seeks. Though they have an enticing set-up, West never really develops these bad guys into something interesting, making their complicated back-story both superfluous and distracting. Similarly, the gauntlet of obstacles Croft must maneuver through look great, but don't do anything special (although you can tell which sequences were patterned after the video game; there's even a convenient tense pause before each one, marking the point where you would hit "save" and set aside the 12 hours necessary to choreograph the precise sequence of finger twitches to get through the scene). It's as if, having found the perfect actress for the lead, they put the rest of the movie on autopilot. Without the requisite excitement, Tomb Raider forces us to focus on the ridiculous complexities of the story, and wonder why the set pieces aren't holding our interest.

To its credit, the movie represents a quantum leap forward in the dubious genre of video game adaptations. After the laughable incompetence of Super Mario Brothers and the like, this flick comes off as positively Bergman-like. But the source material is still painfully thin, and certain adjustments have to be made to turn endless hours of interactive gaming into an adequate 90-minute film. Perhaps, in the end, Tomb Raider is simply unable to transcend its point-and-click origins. But it's nice to think otherwise, and with a heroine like this, anything should be possible. It's frustrating to watch the filmmakers unable to make the pulse-pounding leaps that their title character would complete with ease.

Review published 06.18.2001.

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