“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” has the distinction of being a major motion picture that’s far less imaginative, and quite a bit more stupid, than the interactive game it’s based on. Even though Angelina Jolie does turn out to be the perfect human embodiment of the bodacious and courageous virtual heroine who seeks out adventures and treasures that Indiana Jones missed, everything else about this frenetic production is flat and unexciting. Bound to be a disappointment to the game’s teenage fans and unlikely to rate as a must-see among older auds, this Paramount release no doubt will open strongly and should do well internationally, but doesn’t look to have the legs that will take it to “Mummy” B.O. status domestically among summer popcorn pictures.
Thanks to four top-selling PlayStation and PC games that have appeared over the past five years, and with another just out, Lara Croft has been the cyberbabe of the new millennium, a sexy, kick-ass adventuress who’s been particularly popular among adolescent boys. The games are considered to be particularly challenging examples of their type, taking a long time to play as the British heiress is put through her paces exploring ancient sites while warding off menaces by whipping her high-caliber pistols off her nifty thigh-holsters.
But the screen Lara proves to be much more mundane than her virtual progenitor, no matter how much cool and spunk Jolie provides. Decked out most of the time in a tight shirt, maximum-impact bra, short-shorts or tights and a compact complement of weapons and gear, Jolie’s Lara is always ready for action, endlessly resourceful and never caught short. Aside from her revered late father, who inspired her taste for exotic adventure, is there any man on Earth worthy of her? Not in this picture, anyway.
Uninspired yarn attributed to three story writers, two screenwriters and director Simon West has to do with the competition between Lara and some mercenary bad guys to get their hands on a legendary Triangle of Light. Seems an ancient Asian society, realizing the power of this artifact, split the triangle in two and hid the pieces to prevent anyone from unifying them. If the pieces are joined at the moment all nine planets are in perfect alignment — an event that occurs just once every 5,000 years and is about to take place at story’s start — all sorts of lights will start flashing and he or she responsible will control time and therefore have the power of God.
Unfortunately, Austin Powers and Dr. Evil aren’t around to play out this scenario, so it’s left to the super-chic Lara and a thoroughly lackluster roster of villains and sidekicks to chase around the world trading the upper hand until a breathlessly awaited climax reveals the startling answer as to who wins. Not only do the bad guys fail to pose a formidable enough challenge to Lara to create any suspense, but Lara is never put in what seems like serious jeopardy — much less than James Bond or Indiana Jones, for instance — and never betrays the trace of vulnerability or emotion that might help forge an audience connection. Time has told that it’s not asking too much even of a cartoon character to exhibit a little soul, and that’s just what this entire undertaking is lacking.
Director West, an efficient enough technician to have hooked audiences into the cynical enterprises that were “Con Air” and “The General’s Daughter,” can’t even rouse the audience here with an opening sequence that’s meant to do only that. For practice, Lara disarms a large, insect-like fighting robot, after which there’s a long and boring expositional haul until a rather more eventful action scene in which commandos under the control of Lara’s arch-rival Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) invade her palatial home while she’s doing some graceful bungee practice in the great hall and make off with an ancient “clock” that reps a key part of the Triangle of Light equation.
Next stop is Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and credit must be paid to the producers for having gone the extra mile in securing unique locations where even James Bond has never tread. One of the wonders of the world, ancient Angkor Wat has not been used in a Western feature film since Richard Brooks shot part of “Lord Jim” there in 1964. Lara battles Powell, a small army of sword-bearing statues and, in an evident nod to “Jason and the Argonauts,” an ambulatory, multi-armed giant at the site for 20 minutes. Even though much of it takes place in a soundstage-shot interior, sequence will give most contempo viewers a nice first peek at the remote temple ruins.
A few minutes later it’s off to an ice lake in Siberia, reproduced to stunning effect by craggy locations found in Iceland. In fact, Lara never looks groovier than when, in a little cloth-and-fur number, she’s traipsing across the tundra or elegantly riding a sled drawn by huskies through some glacial tunnels. Unfortunately, there’s the absurdity of the triangle and Powell’s woefully predictable treachery to endure, but at least the filmmakers have the good sense to get it all over with in well under two hours.
Given the almost total lack of anything else going on, interest is all but limited to watching Jolie strike her slinky poses, trot out her clingy costumes, vault around via bungee cords and pulleys and move with inhuman speed and coordination thanks to the wonders of machine-gun editing and special effects. Lara wins all her battles, but Jolie can’t win the war against a humdrum script and direction that never achieves the necessary level of heightened virtual reality.
Jolie and her real father Jon Voight will have to find another vehicle for a meaningful screen pairing, as their one scene together (with the actors mainly seen in separate shots irritatingly cross-cut) is pure hokum. Glen’s villain wanly aspires to Alan Rickman/Jeremy Irons status, while other thesps come and go to little effect.
Kirk M. Petruccelli’s elaborate sets are grand and interesting to explore (and will serve as the visual basis for the next “Tomb Raider” game), while other behind-the-scenes hands provide what’s needed. It’s hard to determine just what composer Graeme Revell contributed, as most of the soundtrack seems filled with pop tunes from the likes of U2, Nine Inch Nails, Chemical Brothers and others.