Tomb Raider is one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2018 off-season. This ostensibly unnecessary reboot is nonetheless a fast-paced, high octane rollercoaster ride over sometimes surprisingly dark territory.
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander won the Academy Award ® for Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl, so audiences can be forgiven if they’re a little surprised to see her follow up with a reboot of a franchise based on a video game. But even Academy Award ® winners have to pay their bills, and with Tomb Raider she not only gets a bite at the coveted franchise apple, but gets to strike a blow for the increasingly plausible premise that there’s an audience for action heroines.
Vikander doesn’t quite have the second coming of Wonder Woman here, but she does succeed in bringing fresh blood and a breath of fresh air to the Lara Croft character, first played on the screen by Angelina Jolie.
Jolie’s Lady Lara Croft was tall, elegant, stylish and overtly sexy. It was not a secret that Jolie’s bra was substantially padded to more closely approximate the look of the character in the original videogames, which after all were being successfully marketed to teenage boys on five continents.
Vikander looks trim and athletic, but she and director Roar Uthaug have opted for a less ethereal, girl-next-door appeal. The approach works. Like several franchise reboots, this version presents a younger protagonist at the beginning of her career. Jolie’s Lady Lara tackled her adventures with an apparently unlimited budget. Vikander’s iteration hasn’t yet come into her inheritance and can’t just charter a private jet at the drop of a designer hat.
The lower tax bracket comes with some interesting advantages. The movie has a grittier, dare we say, real world look. But still, this is a reboot of a videogame property and those seeking Shakespearean-level drama are going to be disappointed. As our story opens, earlier this century, young Lara Croft is growing up learning the skill set today’s well-educated aristocrat needs in today’s complicated social environment: horseback riding, archery, archaeology and mixed martial arts. Her widowed father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), is forever taking off on worldwide jaunts that he won’t talk about but seem to be very important.
When Richard doesn’t come home from his most recent trip, Lara is crushed,and refuses to accept his death. Which means no inheritance, and a heroine who has to bargain shop. It distinguishes the movie from its predecessors, and makes its heroine more relatable. (Her job as a London bicycle courier also provides an unnecessary but thrilling bike race through London traffic.)
The Norwegian-born Uthaug has made several other films, but Tomb Raider is his first English language movie. He has a flair for action, and Tomb Raider provides him ample opportunity to adrenalize his audience. Lara Croft leaps, swings, runs, swims and plummets through a dizzying cinematic landscape of practical and computer-generated peril.
The violence seems real enough though, and some sequences where the movie’s likable young heroine is savagely beaten by hulking bad guys are startling, although it can certainly be argued that if movies are going to see more female action protagonists, they’re going to have to mix it up with male bad guys. In any event, Uthaug seems determined to take Tomb Raider into unaccustomed dark territory.
He also, and this is partly due to a paint-by-numbers script, painfully retreads Indiana Jones material that’s well-worn to the point of threadbare. Embarrassingly, some dialogue has been lifted from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade so literally fans of the older franchise will be able to quote it ahead of the actors.
Daniel Wu (AMC’s Into the Badlands) plays a drunken ship’s captain who befriends Lara, and manage not to get lost in sidekick Hell. Walton Goggins, lately a favorite of Spielberg and Tarantino, is the Bruce Dern for a new generation. He’s currently getting the wild-eyed villain roles that paid Dern’s bills for years. The venerable Derek Jacobi (The Day of the Jackal, the BBC’s I, Claudius, Dead Again, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Gladiator) is shamefully wasted.
The 4K digital cinematography by Matthew Vaughn’s go-to lenser, George Richmond, is excellent. The special effects, for the most part, don’t look like special effects, which is the best thing you can say for special effects.
Tomb Raider clocks in at two minutes shy of two hours, but feels longer. Tighter would have been better, but what they’ve made’s not bad. Tomb Raider delivers what it advertises, and if a regenerated franchise emerges, it might do better at drawing in a female audience in addition to the fanboys. That couldn’t hurt anything.