Review: ‘Tomb Raider’

dfn-tomb_raider-300Alicia Vikander portrays a very different version of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, which is decidedly dark and more hard-edged than might be expected.

Or, at least, what I expected. First released in 1996, the video game Tomb Raider became an instant smash, revolving around the exploits of shapely archeologist Lara Croft. Her shape made the game instantly identifiable and also somewhat objectionable because of the slobbering male fandom that followed.

That shape was also exploited in the first film version, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), starring Angelina Jolie. Director Simon West often appeared to frame shots to focus on her body; running around in tight clothing, as in the game, probably didn’t help. The film itself manifested a sense of humor along with extravagant action sequences, as well as Daniel Craig in his pre-James Bond days, but it felt tepid and overly familiar.

A film sequel followed, which I haven’t seen. Meanwhile, the video game became a phenomenon, spawning its own sequels and eventually a reboot in 2013 and a further sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider.

The new Tomb Raider begins with Lara Croft as a bike courier in London. She is determined to follow her own path, whatever that might be, but the early death of her mother and the mysterious disappearance of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), some seven years before have left large shadows hanging over her.

Finally deciding to move on, she comes into possession of an object that spurs her to investigate her father’s disappearance, leading her first to Hong Kong and a boat owner named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu). Lu Ren’s late father was an associate of Lara’s father; Lara hires him to take her to her father’s last reported location, a supposedly unpopulated island.

Up to this point, Tomb Raider is a sprightly adventure, highlighted by chase sequences that are well-staged by director Roar Uthaug (Cold Prey, The Wave) and his crew. Once on the remote island, however, the tone turns quite dark and menacing. The island is under the control of Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), yet another associate of Richard Croft, who is unreservedly evil and murders without hesitation.

The film often feels at war with its PG-13 rating, especially with so much violent action that’s been tamped down and minimized. Mathias and his crew are all nasty and murderous, and they’ve enslaved unwary travelers and locals to do their work on the island for them as they search for an archaeological artifact.

As for Lara Croft, she is played with considerable empathy by Vikander, who is an expert actress and inspires empathy from the audience, which makes it quite difficult to watch as she is near-constantly attacked and beaten up by men. She is very tough and never gives up, and when given the opportunity gives (nearly) as good as she gets, but it is quite painful to behold.

The screenplay, credited to Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, devises a series of puzzles for Lara to solve, though as the action intensifies, it’s difficult to follow her reasoning, and the puzzles remain rather puzzling, if they were ever intended as anything more than plot devices. Roar Uthaug’s direction is fine, and builds suspense nicely during multiple sequences that often threaten to teeter into the outlandish.

Which might have been good for the film, which is sober and straight-edged and almost always colors between the lines. It’s a sturdy craft, this new Tomb Raider, but for all its unpleasant overtones, it’s too safe for its own good.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, March 16.