The good news about "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" is that Angelina Jolie is even hotter, faster and more commanding than last time around as the fearless heiress/adventuress, plus a little more human. The less welcome news is that though the pic delivers on action, it dawdles through downtime.

The good news about “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” is that Angelina Jolie is even hotter, faster and more commanding than last time around as the fearless heiress/adventuress, plus a little more human. The less welcome news is that most of the same shortcomings that cramped the first installment are still dogging the sequel, which delivers on action but dawdles through downtime. The legions of fans of the character and the interactive game she sprang from should pump mighty initial returns for this Paramount release both in the U.S. and internationally, but pic looks unlikely to escape the steep falloff of other summer blockbusters.

Director Jan De Bont perhaps has a sharper handle on the action sequences and, as a former cinematographer, brings a more muscular visual quality than predecessor Simon West, but he wades through the exposition and quieter moments with a disappointing lack of verve.

In his first screenplay to hit theaters, new scripter Dean Georgaris — who penned the upcoming “Manchurian Candidate” remake and “Paycheck” for Richard Donner — improves on the original in one significant area: He generates some sexual heat for Lara. But he fails to invent a satisfyingly worthy adversary.

Working from a story by Steven E. De Souza and James V. Hart, Georgaris concocts a fairly routine assembly of derivations from 007 and Indiana Jones pics in an assortment of far-flung locations, saving excursions into the fantasy realm for the climactic stretch.

What makes all this reasonably compelling is the novelty of watching a killer action babe flying solo. Jolie’s sexy physicality and rubber-armored curves made the 2001 movie a guilty pleasure for many beyond the obvious core audience of teen game geeks and pushed worldwide grosses to $275 million.

While the kick-ass chicks of “Charlie’s Angels” are equally handy with their fists and feet — though less so with weaponry — they are decidedly more jokey and flirtatious. That trio is composed of girls who want to have fun and clean up crime while they do it. Jolie’s Lara Croft is all woman, with little time for girly frivolousness, though, amusingly, she does ride sidesaddle during horseback target practice.

Lara makes a spectacular entrance: Wearing a black bikini and straddling a Jet-Ski, she pirouettes alongside a boat off the Greek island of Santorini. She then leads a team in a diving expedition to a submerged ancient temple. Here she discovers a glowing golden orb, just in time for Chinese Shay-Ling bandits to arrive, slay her backup boys, snatch the treasure and leave her to die.

The orb contains an encrypted map to Pandora’s box, said to enclose forces of unimaginable evil. This makes it an attractive proposition for Dr. Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist-gone-bad who now manufactures biological weapons.

Enlisted by MI6 to track the Shay-Ling in the Chinese mountains and recover the orb, Lara insists on backup from Scottish former agent Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), with whom she has a romantic history and whose ultimate loyalties remain in question. After he is released from a Kazakhstan prison, the pair drops via jet pod into China, then proceeds on motorbikes before being taken prisoner. Lara takes on bandit leader Chen Lo (Simon Yam) in a cave full of terracotta warriors — just one scene in which the tomb raider appears to demolish more antiquities than she could ever hope to uncover — before she and Terry make a sheer-drop escape.

The orb changes hands repeatedly — and repetitively — heading to Hong Kong, where Reiss steps in. But the ball bounces back into Lara’s court and she heads with it to Kilimanjaro, handcuffing still-untrustworthy Terry to a bedpost during a sexual grapple to keep him out of her hair.

Conveniently, Lara skydives into a jeep driven by her former college chum Kosa (Djimon Hounsou), whose tribal chiefs warn of the danger of opening Pandora’s box. Given that Lara prefers to incapacitate rather than eliminate, her enemies keep coming back, and when Reiss appears, he insists she lead him to the box’s hiding place in the cradle of life. This involves crossing a petrified forest full of menacing creatures.

The discovery of Pandora’s box delivers more of a fizzle than the apocalyptic bang toward which the action appears headed, underlining the film’s failure to back up the eminently watchable heroine with anyone or anything equally dynamic. Invigorated by David Tattersall’s agile camerawork and audacious angles, the action scenes and some of the stunt work have plenty of energy. But there’s a rote feel to the way it’s all threaded together, revealing the PC game origins.

Jolie seems to be enjoying herself more this time; she’s cool and poised, yet injects a little humor and warmth into her plummy British delivery as well as some hint of desire and romantic longing. But while Terry is a hardbodied hunk who can keep pace with Lara physically, and Butler plays him with a sexy smile and a dangerous double edge, the script makes too little of the chemistry between them. Far more unsatisfying are Reiss and his vengeful henchman (Til Schweiger), both drably generic purveyors of evil.

Lindy Hemming’s costumes are again a key element in defining Lara, and while the character’s signature hot pants and thigh holsters have been partially retired, there’s a knockout new wardrobe addition in a silver wetsuit with the most brazenly crotch-enhancing leatherwork since chaps first hit the Castro. Lara’s impeccably turned out in regionally appropriate garb at all times, slipping into an embroidered silk bomber jacket in China or safari chic in Africa. Her makeup stays flawless through all kinds of combat and even her injuries look hot, with artfully applied, aesthetically appealing blood spatters.

Other off-camera contributions are strong, including returning production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli’s grand-scale sets and Alain Silvestri’s orchestral suspense score, mixed with occasional techno-rock elements.

Digital f/x work is slick aside from one very obvious CGI shark with which Lara goes head to head in a tongue-in-cheek encounter.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Production

A Paramount release of a Paramount Pictures presentation in association with Mutual Film Co. & BBC, Tele-Munchen, Toho-Towa of a Lawrence Gordon/Lloyd Levin production in association with Eidos Interactive. Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin. Executive producer, Jeremy Heath-Smith. Co-producer, Louis A. Stroller. Directed by Jan De Bont. Screenplay. Dean Georgaris; story, Steven E. De Souza, James V. Hart, based on the Eidos Interactive game series developed by Core Design.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), David Tattersall; editor, Michael Kahn; music, Alain Silvestri; music supervisor, Peter Afterman; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; supervising art director, John Fenner; art directors, James Morahan, Dennis Bosher, Paul Kirby, Alan Tomkins, Frank Walsh, Su Whittaker; set decorator, Sonja Klaus; costume designer, Lindy Hemming; sound (Dolby Digital/Digital DTS), Simon Kaye, Chris Munro; supervising sound designer, Randy Thom; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Steve Boeddeker; special effects supervisor, Chris Corbould; visual effects supervisor, Steve Begg; assistant director, Cliff Lanning; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Simon Crane; second unit camera, Harvey Harrison; associate producers, Shelly Clippard, Holly Goline; casting, John Hubbard, Daniel Hubbard. Reviewed at Loews Lincoln Square, New York, July 22, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Lara Croft - Angelina Jolie Terry Sheridan - Gerard Butler Jonathan Reiss - Ciaran Hinds Hillary - Christopher Barrie Bryce - Noah Taylor Kosa - Djimon Hounsou Sean - Til Schweiger Chen Lo - Simon Yam Xien - Terence Yin

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