TOMB RAIDER – Alicia, good; the film, less so

I wanted to like this film. I expected to. I tried to. But I didn’t. A modern female action hero – brave, smart, self reliant, resourceful, and athletic – would be as welcome an entry in the cinema as the black superhero (and black directed and acted) Black Panther movie has been. But as capably as Alicia Vikander tackles the title role, the film falls flat. Despite some clever touches in updating the story, the plot is overall rather tired.

More importantly, it’s not clear how the film makers are pitching their movie. Is it grim and serious a la Jason Bourne? Or Saturday matinee action and tongue in cheek as in Indiana Jones? Its tone is mostly that of a serious action film, and certainly Vikander plays Croft with an earnest integrity and a gritty prowess. But Tomb Raider’s look, and its stunts, firmly evoke Indiana Jones. I found the message rather muddied. Of course as the film builds the intensity of its action sequences increases, but as it does so, so does its channelling of Indiana Jones. We get tunnels, precipices, traps, disappearing floors, roof cave-ins etc. The demise of some of the bad guys, although not for the same reasons as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is so evocative of that film that it’s either a great tribute, or downright unimaginative.

This is a re-boot, so we have an origin story, setting out how Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) sets off to track down her missing father Richard (Dominic West), who’s convinced an evil organisation called Trinity is attempting to uncover the long lost tomb of a Japanese queen, which, if opened, would bring about a worldwide catastrophe. She’s well equipped for the task. Lara can kickbox, shoot a bow and arrow, and handle herself with a great deal of athletic ability. She’s an intelligent puzzle solver and good at thinking on her feet. It seems she’s largely fended for herself since her father’s disappearance seven years earlier, although she’s under the occasional eye of Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas) who appears to be a guardian of sorts.

The first half of the film builds rather slowly, broken up by an early kickboxing fight (a Bourne-ish encounter) and then an entertaining bicycle chase (an Indiana Jones-ish blat through the streets of London). Lara’s journey to find her father takes her to Hong Kong, where she joins forces with Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) whose own father has disappeared.

When the pair reach journey’s end they meet the principal villain of the film, Mathias Vogel, played by Walton Goggins. This is another example of a character where the writers are having a foot in two camps. On the one hand he’s a cold blooded murderer, but then the writers try to soften him with a hint of a back story. Basically Vogel doesn’t want to be doing the job his evil masters have assigned him to do. It makes somehow for a toned down bad guy, for all his violent tendencies. This is especially frustrating as we know how good Goggins can be.

We’ve probably all seen so many action movies set in jungles that we could count them to fall asleep, and this one has its share of people traipsing, running and falling through all manner of terrain. Add to that the obligatory bad guys firing machine guns at our heroes and mostly missing, and a somewhat predictable air settles over the second half of the film, as full as it is of stunt action.  A couple of sequences are of note, especially Vikander’s dalliance with an old rusty warplane perched amid a raging torrent.  But it’s a “been there done that” kind of feeling, only saved, as previously mentioned, by Vikander’s wholehearted performance.

And it is Vikander on whom most attention falls. She carries off the role with verve and physical presence, but again the writing isn’t quite on the mark. Too much earnest endeavour and not enough lightness of touch can make matters a little dull. And then, if you are going to commit to a serious action hero, stick to it. Vikander is given few if any wisecracks to throw at those around her. When one finally comes along, it prompts a laugh, but then a question. Where did that from? Tomb Raider is clearly set up to the first of a franchise. Maybe it’ll happen, but if there’s a second outing here, let’s hope for a more interesting and entertaining story and script.


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