There’s a curse surrounding movies based on video games. Try as they might, studios can’t quite seem to translate the fun and interactive nature of a good video game, whether it’s something as simple as Pac-Man [see the daft film Pixels] or more complex stories like Max Payne or Postal, into a compelling and entertaining cinematic experience. One of the few exceptions was the original ‘Tomb Raider’ film, starring Angelina Jolie as the hero of the film and action icon known as much for her running, running, running as her scanty outfits. Jolie’s sequel in the series was so dull, however, that the franchise never fully emerged and the studio was done with ‘Tomb Raider’ until new hero Alicia Vikander came along to breath new life into the story.
For the dozen or so of you who aren’t familiar with the story, Lara Croft is the heir to a massive global corporation and has been raised by her ruggedly handsome father on the family estate. But Daddy has a secret identity as a sort of Indiana Jones type, finding vast conspiracies and vanishing for months on end to extricate remarkable artifacts from dangerous places. Until Daddy, Sir Richard Croft (Dominic West), heads off and doesn’t return.
The new Tomb Raider movie opens seven years after Dad has vanished and young Lara has turned her back on the family business, estate, and her inheritance. Instead, in what’s easily the best sequence in the entire film, she’s learning how to kickbox and is scraping by as a bike courier in London. To make some money quickly, she agrees to be the “fox” in a fox hunt: she has to outrun a throng of men on bicycles by being faster and more nimble on her own bike to earn the prize money. It’s a splendid action sequence that’s new and something quite unlike anything I’ve seen on screen. Good fun!
The story begins in earnest when family retainer and Lara’s guardian Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up. Lara, it seems, needs to sign some papers to formalize the changes at the company and memorialize her father’s death. During that process she is given a wooden puzzle cylinder reminiscent of the Codex from ‘The DaVinci Code’ which reveals a clue that unveils her father’s secret life. In a conveniently labelled box, she learns about his last adventure and it fires up her curiosity; she wants to track down Daddy and find out once and for all whether he’s dead or alive.
The label on the box, however, represents all that’s wrong with this version of ‘Tomb Raider.’ Instead of having genuinely intriguing and complex puzzles that Lara – and the audience – has to work at solving, everything’s so overtly obvious that it’s like the 2nd grade version of a murder mystery. Time and again I wanted complexity and was given a shallow, obvious sequence of events that left no mystery, no surprises and felt banal. Perhaps it’s appropriate for a video game to be this predictable since the story is really just filler for the challenges and obstacles for a player to overcome, but that doesn’t work cinematically. I wanted story, I wanted to understand who was who and what was going on, and instead got the barest comic book of a story that very loosely tied together the various action sequences.
Lara learns that her father’s last adventure took him to a small island “lost” in the sea off Japan, and, finding the receipt for the ship charter (really?) she pawns a family heirloom (when surrounded by extraordinary wealth and heir to a massive family fortune) and hops a plane to Hong Kong to find the ship’s captain, seven years after her father vanishes. Makes sense, right? Anyway, this is when one of the most enjoyable and charismatic members of the cast shows up, Lu Ren (Dennis Wu). They head into the sunset on his derelict freighter and encounter horrible weather just as they reach the island.
This is when Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins) shows up. Seems he’s in league with a shadowy organization that seeks to find the evil Japanese witch and gain control of a great and terrible power. Or something like that. The entire mythos around the quest is at best fuzzy, but it doesn’t matter because Richard Croft, and now Lara Croft are seeking it, presumably to ensure it doesn’t fall into the hands of an evil person like Vogel. He, of course, is seeking it because he’s a bad guy and while he’s apparently been stuck on this tiny flyspeck of an island for seven years, he’s been unable to find the entrance to the mysterious tomb or find a castaway on the island either.
Actor Walter Goggins can really deliver. His work with “Justified” is terrific. In Tomb Raider, however, he’s terrible. One of the worst, least compelling and least frightening bad guys in an action film in many years. It’s hard to say whether it’s the director who couldn’t coax a good performance or that Goggins just phoned it in, but in a film that revolves around the hero being in peril, a dull one-note villain just doesn’t work.
And then there are the many elements of the early ‘Indiana Jones’ movies that show up in ‘Tomb Raider,’ so many that the film almost seems like an audition for Alicia Vikander to take over the title role from an old, tired Harrison Ford. Heck, she’d be 100x better than Shia LaBeouf. But I digress.
The action sequences are good. Vikander is quite acceptable as Lara Croft (though could do with a bit more emotional range). Goggins as the villain? Not so much. And that storyline. There’s no way around it, this is a film that you’ll enjoy if you lower your expectations and just go in hoping for a fun adventure. In particular, the first 20-30 minutes of the film are great fun. That’s about it. There’s not much else to recommend in this formulaic action film remake.