Review: “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”

Its funny how pissed off some people get with the “Tomb Raider” movies, partly I guess because they are the closest thing to the Indiana Jones franchise there is out there, but more relevantly because lets face it Paramount has twice tried and failed to bring to life what should have been one of the great female action film vehicles of the past decade.

Lets clear things up right up front – the first “Tomb Raider” was simply a terrible movie, no question. From ancient orders after metallic triangles through to mystical sojourns with a riddle-speaking father, the movie was not only poorly constructed but for the most part made practically no sense. A lot of the reviews understandably and deservedly crucified it as it had all the problems of your average, shoddily put together dumb Summer popcorn movie but combined that with a director of limited experience and a story which was quite frankly dull.

Yet there was potential there – the Croft character was strong and could be built on, similarly its a stand alone style episode franchise (ala Bond or Trek) which means that by its very nature the sequels lend themselves to shifting cast & crew members and could easily outclass their predecessors. Consequently they made ‘Cradle’ which is a definite step up from the first film, however its still ordinary.

If the first was a bad Indy clone engulfed in a wave of convolution and difficulties, this is just a mediocre Indy clone hampered by the usual problems of empty Summer blockbusters. The story is more epic, much more straight-forward and at least has some momentum to it – Jan DeBont may not be much of a director for story, but he can handle pacing well and moves things along with sequences never really outliving their required length.

The film opens with its best idea – an earthquake off the coast of Santorini uncovers temples built by Alexander the Great including one housing a glowing orb map to the secret location of “The Cradle of Life” – the point where life began and where the not-so-legendary Pandora’s Box lies. From jetskis to one hell of a partly submerged and collapsing temple set, the film certainly opens with a bang and a fun action sequence but like the Hong Kong street gunfight sequence later on it just has to end the scene by taking things one big step too far and destroys the smidgen of credibility the sequences before it had been building – gunfights and falling debris I can buy, but punching out a shark and haphazard bamboo pole vaulting – gimme a break.

Actually the first hour and a bit of this film is stronger than you’d think – from the Croft training scenes, the verbal sparing with her ex-lover (Butler), the battles with an Asian crime syndicate and a race to retrieve the golden orb, the focus has shifted more towards real life action stunt set pieces and clever escapes rather than silly gadgets, nifty CG tricks and monsters seen in the first film. There’s a hell of a cool base-jump turned flying sequence over the cityscape of Hong Kong, similarly some scenes ring with a nice sense of fun and don’t feel as forced as some of the first film’s gags.

However when things move to Africa in the third act, the problems really crop up – not only does the pacing begin to fail, but the script starts heading down into muddled territory as it turns trees from what looks like the set of “Sleepy Hollow 2” into poor CG monsters resembling the love child of the Queen Alien and LOTR’s Cave Troll, and follows that with an all too dull showdown in the strobe-lit nightclub-esque ‘Cradle’ complete with “The Mummy”-style pool of black liquid death.

The strength that makes this film even remotely passable is Jolie. From her devilish eyes and pouty lips, to her attempts at a refined British accent, she takes on and fills the larger than life character’s shoes well. Its a shame the rest of the cast doesn’t work anywhere near the level of effort she at least seems to be putting in.

Gerard Butler makes a likeable rogue foil – the muscled greying Scotsman is an unusual choice for a sidekick but it works well, except for the utter failure of the ‘old flame’ subplot (yet there’s a nice bit of foreplay in here for a PG-13 movie). The rest of the cast is a wash – Barrie and Taylor are purely there for continuity sake and have far less to say & do, whilst bad guy Ciaran Hinds plays it up like a really awful Bond/Austin Powers villain and sidekick Til Schweiger is a dead zone when it comes to any personality.

Where the problems here lie once again tie back to the shoddily made script. The constant shift of locale is a cool idea and the central concept of hunting down Pandora’s Box has its merits, but its all betrayed by gaping plot holes and shifting character agendas on top of the few moments of all-too-silly action.

For all her smarts, Croft makes a few really stupid decisions which aren’t logical in any way except to keep the movie narrative driving forward and similarly her skills with fighting and guns seem to come and go with odd timing. Other script problems are more direct or inane such as in the finale – why didn’t they just get into the ‘Cradle’ the way Sheridan does, to the central conceit of the box itself (according to mythology, the only thing that should be in the box is ‘hope’ as all the evil is already out).

DeBont’s skilled hand, the superb production values, Jolie’s sheer charisma and some good stunts make this baby hold together and if the writers had actually spent sometime developing better supporting characters and most certainly a much better third act, this could’ve been a boffo action adventure worth watching again.

Instead its just another empty average blockbuster, better than the last two DeBont has done (but not by much) and a step above similar efforts of late, but compared with some strong fare out now this is just disappointingly average.