There’s a rule among movie buffs that there has never been a decent live-action adaptation of a video game. Not a single one. A scant few detractors will defend the original “Resident Evil” or “Mortal Kombat” movies, but even then the arguments are rarely more passionate than “it works as a guilty pleasure.” The Angelina Jolie-led “Tomb Raider” movies from the early 2000’s are certainly no exception to this rule, though the 2001 original is the highest-grossing video game movie of all time. This commercial success from nearly two decades ago has led Hollywood to excavate the character of Lara Croft and let her take another shot at representing the medium.
Croft, now played by Alicia Vikander (a recent Oscar winner, as was Jolie), starts the movie by getting beaten up. It’s not an unconscionable beating, she’s forced to tap out in an MMA fight fair and square, but it establishes that she can’t yet overcome certain obstacles. It’s a good decision, it shows she has room for growth. When Lara’s not getting beaten up in fights, she’s getting beaten down by life, unable to make ends meet with a meager courier job. She could claim a huge inheritance from her father (Dominic West) if she wanted, save for the tiny detail that she refuses to accept that her father is dead. He disappeared in the Pacific Ocean seven years ago, and while Lara is well within her legal rights to declare him dead, something about it doesn’t feel right. Just before she can sign her father’s life away, Lara discovers some hidden research that leads her discover his double life as a sort of paranormal treasure-hunter. She also discovers evidence as to exactly which island he was on when he disappeared. She decides to use the last of her money to travel to this island herself and see if she can find some answers.
Lara travels to Hong Kong to enlist a guide (Daniel Wu), who’s battling similar demons over his own missing father, and the two take on the ocean together. A storm wrecks their unsteady vessel, and they wind up prisoners of the island’s miserable leader Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vogel needs Lara’s father’s research to find an ancient tomb that will give him and his evil organization power over life and death. Lara escapes from Vogel and nearly succumbs to the dangers of the island, being saved only by a mysterious figure who’s been away from civilization for a long time. To sum up the rest of the movie: Lara, Vogel, and some other characters go a-tomb-raidin’.
It’s not Vikander’s fault, but I didn’t care for this version of Lara Croft. I found her too selfish. The character gets off on the wrong foot with me by being one of those psycho bike couriers who yells at pedestrians to get out of her way while she plows through areas where bikes have no business going. She behaves similarly during a foot chase in Hong Kong. Then she draws gunfire in a slave labor camp where she claims she’s freeing the workers, but without a suitable endgame. I know I saw at least one person take a bullet in that scene that never should have been fired. There’s also the little matter of her endangering the entire world by ignoring a steadfast instruction from her father and endangering the world again by not allowing the bad guys to foolishly get themselves killed.
The world still has yet to see a “good” live-action video game movie, but relatively speaking, “Tomb Raider” might very well be the greatest one ever made. I laughed at a joke or two, I was captivated by a sensitive scene or two. This movie with an unlikeable protagonist and a nonsensical system of booby traps may actually be the best at something. It’s a shallow, dubious honor, but I have a feeling this movie will take it.
“Tomb Raider” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language. Its running time is 118 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.