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Angelina Jolie becomes Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Iain Glen, Daniel Craig, Noah Taylor, Chris Barrie, and Jon Voight
Screenplay: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary (story), Patrick Massett & John Zinman (screenplay), Simon West (adaptation)
Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, and Colin Wilson
Director: Simon West
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for action violence, language, and some sensuality

There is really only one reason Tomb Raider works as well as it does. No, it isn't Simon West's surprisingly assured handling of the action sequences. It isn't the screenplay which is about as standard as you could ask for of any Hollywood adventure film (not to mention written by five different people). And it isn't the gorgeous sets and visual effects. Tomb Raider's success lies squarely on its cast--led by the amazingly talented Angelina Jolie.

Then again, it could be that I am utterly in love with Ms. Jolie. Okay, "in love" is a bit overzealous. "Infatuated" seems more like it. Since I first saw her in 1998's made-for-cable film Gia, Jolie has commanded my attention like no other actress in Hollywood. The only comparison would be Michelle Pfeiffer after her turn as Catwoman (unfortunately, Pfeiffer all but vanished from sight afterwards). Jolie has become a mild obsession with me, to date the most interesting, original, and stirring actress to emerge from Hollywood. Her physical beauty is unmatched, but more surprisingly, her talent is just as impressive. And frankly, everything she has ever said is instantly quotable.

Whoa... got sidetracked there--back to the review. Tomb Raider is hands down the best video game adaption to date. And while that isn't exactly high praise, it is also one of the most entertaining adventure films since the Indiana Jones series ended. Simon West and his handful of screenwriters have done a remarkable job with adapting the popular video game to the big screen. Maintaining the absurdness of a video game and mixing it with a genuine motion picture, West has crafted an involving and effective summer flick.

Tomb Raider begins with our heroine, Lady Lara Croft (Jolie), battling it out with a robotic creature, complete with buzzsaws and large, powerful legs to squish any intruder. To nobody's surprise, Croft dominates. And also to nobody's surprise, we find out shortly thereafter that the battle was merely a training drill for Croft. Techno-dweeb Bryce (Noah Taylor) rushes to the aid of the fallen machine, as Croft's butler Hilary (the very funny Chris Barrie) watches in amusement. And within five minutes, Croft is taking a nice, long shower (if you listen closely, you can hear the drool of thirteen year olds everywhere).

The plot, as much of it as there is, serves its purpose, and offers some surprisingly nice touches to Croft's character. The Illuminati, a group whose purpose is to take over the world (or something like that), is searching for the whereabouts of a mystical Triangle of Light, which enables the holder to control time itself. They've hired Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) to discover the whereabouts of this device and retrieve it for them. Unfortunately, he has only a week, with the alignment of all nine planets being essential to the triangle's operation. Even more trouble is that the triangle was broken in two, and both pieces were hidden at opposite ends of the world. At the same time, Croft discovers an ancient clock-within-a-clock that serves as the key to unlock the two pieces and activate the triangle's powers.

That is basically the entire plot. Anyone going into this film expecting a masterful plot full of intricacies should exit the theater and have their head examined. Tomb Raider is all about entertainment, and in that field it succeeds with flying colors. From the first action sequence, to the mid-air bungee ballet, to the final solar system puzzle, Tomb Raider manages to involve the viewer without seeming too pretentious. Many comparisons to The Mummy will be made, but it is unfair to this film. Whereas The Mummy was a ridiculously long and boring attempt at the reinvention of the Indiana Jones series, Tomb Raider is a wild blend of gorgeously filmed locations, outlandish sets, and top-notch stuntwork. And let's not forget Angelina, who performs almost all of her own stunts. It gives the film a feel of authenticity to see real people doing the stunts, instead of CGI characters. Just watching Jolie perform the bungee ballet is enough to cause anyone to stop and take notice. I, for one, give kudos to the filmmakers for realizing that much of the excitement in an adventure film is to watch our actors doing their own stunts.

Simon West, however, must be given his fair share of the credit. While his direction is sometimes a bit sloppy (the quick cut from the final action segment to the Croft mansion is particularly annoying), it is more often hit than miss. What makes his direction stand out is his realization that this is based on a video game, and how he subtlely reminds us. Watch, for instance, when the bad guys suddenly vanish after the clock has been taken (in video games, bad guys tend to vanish from existence after being killed or defeated). I liked the battle with Buddha, when the rock creatures dissipated after a simple blow. And I liked how Buddha's head turned to reveal another face once Croft blows its first away. You remember how hard it is to kill "the Boss" at the end of each level in video games--how, just when you think you've beaten them, they will come back for more. But most importantly, he remembers that people are here to ogle Angelina Jolie, and he provides plenty of ogling time. There is nothing finer than a woman with guns kicking ass.

The beauty of the visuals and special effects (which are seamlessly blended with the actors) are filmed with surprising affection. Some shots are destined to become wallpaper for many computer users, as when Croft stands atop a large stone beam. At times, the film does get bogged down by its seriousness, but compared to The Mummy, a little seriousness is appreciated. It is not without its humor, as when Croft asks which chair Powell sits in for the Illuminati meetings. Or when Croft inspects one of the intruders from atop a chandelier as if it is a worthless and invasive bug needing to be squashed. But for the most part, everything is handled seriously, which gives the film a sense of realism. And a little realism mixed with fantasy goes a long way.

The cast must be credited for rounding out characters that, on paper, seem thin and fake. Daniel Craig is a pleasant surprise as Croft's fellow tomb raider who is merely in it for the money. Both Chris Barrie and Noah Taylor provide comic relief to leaven the serious mood of Croft. Jon Voight makes a suitable father for Croft (in real life, he is Angelina Jolie's father which makes their scenes together almost spiritual). And Iain Glen gives the bland villain some color by being snobby and annoyingly uptight without ever seeming like a cariacature. But this is entirely Angelina's film. From her outfits to her boosted bust to her ponytail, she is Lara Croft. There is not one other actress I can think of who could have pulled it off. Jolie is perfectly cast, and yet again continues her ascent up Hollywood's chain of power. Soon enough, she will attain the same heights as Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. But then again, maybe it's just wishful thinking.

Tomb Raider is rated PG-13 for action violence, language, and some sensuality. There is fleeting nudity, most of which occurs just to cause viewers to drool heavily. A glimpse of Jolie's breast here, a conveniently placed table in front of Craig's manhood there. This is not a great film by any means. It is not designed for anything but pure entertainment. And despite some offish moments and unwise directorial decisions, it succeeds wonderfully. I know I'll be seeing the film again and again, if only just to see Angelina Jolie leaping into the air, kicking major ass. For me, that's reason enough. What more could you want?

***1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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