THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE"

A few years ago, I gave a positive review to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I felt that watching the movie was kind of like playing a video game – it gave me a temporary adrenaline rush that I enjoyed in a mindless, trivial way. Given the film’s origin, that seemed appropriate. Sequels perhaps demand something more. After all, once you’ve mastered a video game, is it as much fun to play again? Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life has been designed much like the sequels to games; it takes the familiar and tries to crank it up a notch. Game sequels generally rely on better graphics and better interactive play. This movie sequel has more imagination and situations that draw you in more. Again, that seems appropriate.

Angelina Jolie returns as Lara Croft, and this time she is in search of Pandora’s Box which, we are told, is not a myth after all. It is a real box that supposedly exists in a remote, hard-to-find part of Africa called “the cradle of life.” This is where all life sprang from; Pandora’s Box is filled with “anti-life” and if opened would spell certain disaster for the world. The person who wants to open it is Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who, naturally, wants to use it for his own evil purposes. (The fact that he has manufactured an antidote has something to do with it.) To make sure she reaches the cradle of life before Reiss, Lara enlists the help of Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler). He is similarly a treasure hunter, albeit one who wound up in jail for turning on the British government in order to steal a precious prize. He is also Lara’s old boyfriend.

Now let’s get one thing out of the way. I’ve never played the Lara Croft video games, but I think I know what at least half the appeal is. So do you. The people who designed the game were obviously men, and the central character is a wet dream for millions of young male “gamers.” With her enormous breasts, tiny waist, and a backside bootylicious enough to make J. Lo green with envy, Lara Croft is not just sexy, she’s impossibly sexy. There’s something almost otherworldly about her physicality. It’s like the kids from Weird Science took their fetish to a whole new level and created the mother of all sex symbols. Not to be sexist, but for the Tomb Raider movies to work, you need an actress who has that quality. This is why Angelina Jolie is so brilliantly cast. Her trademark features – full, pouty lips, voluptuous curves, dark intensity – are almost exaggerations of pure sexuality. I’m sure the actress herself would scoff at this suggestion, and she certainly doesn’t exude it in every movie. What I’m saying is that she has an uncanny ability to be transformed into Lara Croft. A few good makeup, hair, and costume choices turn Jolie into the personification of the character.

It helps, too, that she can act. Because Jolie is well-known for her, uh, eccentricities, it’s not hard to buy her as a globe-trotting adventurer who can hold her own against anyone or anything. This is really a different kind of acting. It’s a performer reshaping her own qualities (both physical and personality-wise) in order to bring an established pop-culture persona to life. The toughness, resolve, and – pardon the language – ballsiness that Jolie appears to have adapts perfectly to the character.

I like what the movie does with Lara this time. She’s a little more rounded as a person, especially in her relationship with Terry. There’s an underlying question of whether he can be trusted, given his past actions. Her heart wants to believe he’s changed, but her head tells her to beware. This leads to a number of surprisingly compelling scenes, including one in which Lara announces that she’s been given license to kill him if need be. There’s a good interaction between them at the end as well, the outcome of which tells us a lot about both characters.

The original Tomb Raider had a good performance from Angelina Jolie and a lot of exciting action scenes. This sequel has both those elements, plus a better story. The plot here is more elaborate; it holds the action scenes together a lot more effectively. Director Jan De Bont (Speed, Twister) certainly supplies more than enough of the rock-‘em-sock-’em action that fans will expect (including a terrific scene in a “haunted” forest), but he also makes sure that the action serves the story. Really, this is a much more well-made film than the first one.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life surprised me by being so good. Movies based on video games have a lousy track record. The fact that this particular game was able to be adapted even better the second time than it was the first suggests that Lara Croft might actually be turning into something other than a pixilated sex symbol; she’s becoming a character worth watching.

( out of four)


Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is rated PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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