Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Displaying boobs, brawn, and brain (in that order), Angelina Jolie renders such a splashy performance in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider that she not only elevates the video-game turned big-screen adventure a notch or two above its routine storyline, but also makes the entire enterprise impossible to imagine without her.

As the first major distaff action hero since Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies, Jolie's character combines elements of James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Batman in a sumptuously-mounted, effects-ridden adventure that includes spectacular action pieces, exotic locales, religious mysticism, and even emotional melodrama. Indeed, the family subplot, which bears strong autobiographical dimensions, makes the film's self-reflexivity even more intriguing: Jon Voight, Jolie's real-life father, plays her onscreen dad.

Deploying well its $100 million plus budget, Paramount's major summer release should do boffo B.O. globally, if the overkill marketing campaign will pull off the trick of making Jolie a fantasy figure to teenage boys and an icon to teenage girls. With some luck, Tomb Raider will join Paramount's Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible as an instant juggernaut franchise.

Initially, the prospect of yet another video game turned into a movie wasn't thrilling, based on the poor results of The Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon, and Wing Commander. But casting the ever-intriguing Jolie as adventurer Lara Croft immediately set Tomb Raider apart from previous doomed attempts at transplanting cyber-heroes onto film.

Understandably, the filmmakers had to take into account the cult subculture that has emerged around the video games, but, obviously, didn't want to retread ground the games have already covered. In this respect, director Simon West's goal to create a totally new film experience with a fresh spin, without losing sight of the game, is only partially fulfilled. The film embraces some good aspects of the modernist games, but its character that still lacks depth or complexity.

It's not surprising that it took three years to bring Tomb Raider to screen life; after all, Eidos Interactive video games have been phenomenally popular. What is perplexing, however, is that at least ten scribes, most uncredited, have worked on the script, and that the end result is a patchwork that's barely passable but decidedly not original or exciting. Since this is the first film in a potentially viable franchise, no constraints were placed on the field, which is wide open. Indeed, Tomb Raider doesn't follow any particular game in the series. Some of the plot comes out of “New Scientist” articles, some from “National Geographic,” and some from various scripters who weaved in “crackpot theories” about planetary alignment, sacred geometry, and exotic religions.

Born into wealth and groomed at elite schools, Lady Lara Croft is a voluptuous Brit heiress. The yarn establishes quickly that Lara never met her mother, who died at childbirth. She was raised and educated by her father-explorer, who unfortunately died when she was eight. Lara travels to dangerous locales around the globe in search of rare crypts and long-forgotten empires, speaks numerous languages, and is highly trained for combat. More importantly, she answers to no one, obeying only her desire for adventure. Lara faces her greatest challenge, when she has to find the two halves of an ancient artifact buried in space and time–controlling the object means possessing the ultimate power. But to get there, she must first take on a vigorous and dangerous secret society.

Traveling, taking prize-winning photos, and visiting archeological sites serve as camouflage for Lara's real passion: raiding tombs and throwing herself into extreme adventures. In the games, she's meant to be inspirational role model: strong and attractive to men, but also tough enough, forthright, and knowing in ways that make her an icon to women. In the film, however, the effort to make Lara more than an action cartoon cut-out is semi-successful. As a 21st century creature, Lara is constructed as a blank hero so that audiences can ascribe any attribute to her. Hence, Lara is rugged and feisty, but also soft, naughty, and playful.

In the Alien movies, Weaver's character was strong in dramatic terms, but unlike traditional male heroes, she survived more by luck than by judgment. As action hero, Jolie goes way beyond Weaver, showing a wider range of skills: kick-boxing, weapon-mastery, motorbike riding, gymnastics, canoeing, husky dog-racing, bungee ballet, and yoga. Moreover, in contrast to Weaver's de-sexualized character, Lara is a Barbarella with a voluptuous physique, squeezed into short leather pants and tight tank tops.

To what extent Jolie will satisfy the demands of the games' fans and their preconceived notions of Lara's look remains to be seen. The game's success is due to the character's cross-over appeal to men, women, and children for obviously different reasons. But there's no doubt that Jolie does her best in a role that's close to her offscreen personality, emphasizing her notorious fearlessness, wayward playfulness, and bizarre humor.

The character's emotional journey encompasses an empowering discovery of her past that also unravels the mysterious circumstances of her father's death. Jolie and Voight, who had worked together only once, in 1982's Lookin' To Get Out, have one scene together that draws heavily on their own offscreen relationship. The sight of a father-daughter reunion will no doubts raise the picture's emotional status.

Rather disappointingly, underneath the striking visual and sound effects lies a movie that tells a fundamentally familiar story about loyalty, betrayal, and heroism. For instance, the villains want the precious artifact for nefarious means, whereas Lara's motivation is familial: to reunite with her presumably death father.

What's really missing from the movie is a worthy adversary, a lesson that other actioners have demonstrated by using villains who were more astute and colorful than the heroes. Indeed, the secondary characters are weak, resulting in a movie that for long stretches feels like a one-woman show. Powell (Glen), adversary of Lara's father and now her enemy, is not a worthy antagonist.

Though displaying fast-thinking and shrewd ability to pinpoint her Achilles' heel that almost causes her demise, it's a one-dimensional role. Then there's Alex (Craig), Lara's fellow tomb raider and occasional foe, who may or may not have had a romance with her. Initially, he takes the job with Powell for mercenary reasons–it offers huge money and possible fame–but there's also the possibility that he's doing it to see Lara again.

As for Lara's team, her sidekick and tech guru, Bryce (Taylor), is mildly amusing in a role that calls for gawky eccentricity. Her stiff and disciplined butler, Hillary (Chris Barrie), plays well off Bryce's laid back and messy character. The other deficiencies are a sentimental streak that runs through the narrative in the father-daughter subplot (by now a clich), and the resistance to engage Lara in any meaningful romantic/sexual affair, possibly due to eagerness to show a new millennium protagonist who's as tough as the boys.

Production values are eye-popping for a yarn that was shot in England, Iceland (standing for Siberia's famous Temple of Ten Thousand Shadows), and Cambodia's ancient Tomb of the Dancing Light, among many wondrous locations.