A film review by Craig J. Koban March 24, 2018

TOMB RAIDER jjj
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2018, PG-13, 118 mins.

Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft  /  Walton Goggins as Mathias Vogel  /  Dominic West as Richard James Croft  /  Daniel Wu as Lu Ren  /  Kristin Scott Thomas as Ana Miller  /  Nick Frost as Max  /  Hannah John-Kamen as Sophie  /  Antonio Aakeel as Nitin Ahuja

Directed by Roar Uthaug  /  Written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons
 

 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

I think itís important for film critics to use relative benchmarks when rating films and not universal ones.  For example, when I gave JOHN WICK a 4 star rating I wasn't implying that it was good as, say, a 4 star rated drama like CITIZEN KANE; rather, that Keanu Reeves flick was a 4 star action thriller.

Now, what does this have to do with the new TOMB RAIDER, a cinematic reboot of the iconic video game franchise, which previously spawned two Angelina Jolie starring films of the early 2000's?  Well, relative to its genre, TOMB RAIDER is one of the most purely faithful and purely enjoyable video game to movie adaptations to emerge...perhaps ever. 

Now, that may not, in fact, be saying a whole hell of a lot if you realize that this genre has been on qualitative life support for decades and has essentially been cursed.  Beyond that, it's a genre that has produced so many mediocre to awful entries as of late, like ASSASSIN'S CREED, NEED FOR SPEED, and (shivers) HITMAN: AGENT 47.  When all of that is brought in for consideration, it's easy to see how this latest incarnation of TOMB RAIDER is in a higher class all to itself.  It's an upper echelon work in, yes, a severely tainted genre, but it's nevertheless a small triumph for it, and it wholly delivers on the kind of thanklessly efficient and well oiled thrills of adventure films of yesteryear. 

 

 

It also does what all decent movie reboots should do, and that's paying respectful homage to the source material that came before it while effectively retooling it for modern consumption.  Rather refreshingly, this TOMB RAIDER seeks inspiration for the very recent - and very stellar - series of video games in the franchise that, in turn, offered up a new origin story for the globetrotter, artifact hunting hero.  Those games - played by me in their entirety - were sensational at revamping the lead character in a grounded and gritty fashion.  This new TOMB RAIDER film, in many respects, aims for a convincing human scale that tries to tailor Lara Croft into a young woman that's empowered, vulnerable and relatable all at the same time.  Best of all, the Croft here isn't an overly hyper sexualized action figure that was the Jolie version, nor is she reduced to mere eye candy.  The major casting coup here is Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who's absolutely a stunning beauty in her own right, but makes her version of Croft wholly and uniquely her own, which serves the production well.

One of the largest and most welcoming changes to the character is that Croft is not an obscenely wealthy woman of privilege, nor is she even an educated woman or archaeologist.  No, this character now is a bit more rough, rugged, and down on her luck, working menial jobs for small paychecks.  Hell, she hasn't even attended University.  In a series of flashbacks several years in the past we learn that her father, Richard (Dominic West), was an obsessive archaeologist that said goodbye to Lara at a very young age to engage in a search for the sought after remains of a Japanese witch, Himiko.  Tragically, Richard vanished and never returned, presumed dead by Lara and his own company back home.  Surprisingly, Lara wants nothing to do with the vast financial resources that her father left her; she instead leaves much of the day-to-day operations of the company to her guardian, Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Lara's life changes forever when she uncovers a clue to her father's very whereabouts during the reading of his will, which leads her to his very well hidden private offices (buried under his tomb - nice touch), that further provides details as to the power of Himiko and what it could mean if it falls into the wrong hands.  Driven by an insatiable curiosity, a lust for grand adventure, and locating her potentially alive father, Lara decides to team up with a Hong Kong boat captain, Lu (Daniel Wu), who also has a very personal stake in the mystery behind that ancient artifact.  Unfortunately, their ship is destroyed via a violent storm just off of the coast of their island destination, which leads to both of them being captured and imprisoned by the ruthless Vogel (a menacingly soft spoken Walter Goggins), a member of the villainous Trinity organization that will stop at nothing to find Himiko.  Vogel has been on the island for seven years and his employers refuse to let him leave until he's successful, which leaves him more than a bit afflicted with cabin fever.  Lara, in pure Lara Croftian fashion, escapes his clutches and the proverbial race to the artifact is on.

One thing that I admired about this TOMB RAIDER was how much old school craftsmanship Norwegian director Roar Uthaug brings to the proceedings, who previously made the extremely good and extremely underrated disaster film THE WAVE.  There's a wonderfully aura of practicality to the production here, which absconds away from an over preponderance of phony CGI trickery and instead relies on real locations, real stunts, and action sequences that have a sharp clarity and pack a strong visceral punch.  This is very apparent right from the get-go in an introductory action sequence that shows Lara participating in a vast bicycle chase through the jam packed streets of London (think FAST AND THE FURIOUS with mountain bikes) that does a bravura job of (a) establishing this film's lean direction and virtuoso stunt choreography and (b) the main character's gutsy determination, physical dexterity, and willingness to use deductive logic and fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants ingenuity to get out of harm's way.  This sequence builds Lara from the ground up and helps to establish the fact that this TOMB RAIDER isn't going to be riddled with the over-the-top hamminess of the Jolie-era films.

Once, of course, poor Lara gets stranded on that isolated island with sociopathic archaeologists that want her dead, TOMB RAIDER kicks things into overdrive and delivers on intended promises of not only showcasing the evolving heroine on her Rambo-like quest to becoming a fierce warrior in her new jungle environments, but also showing how such a radical change has on her psychologically.  Lara goes through the absolute physical and mental ringer here: She's forced, largely against her will, to face off against larger male opponents while being frequently shot at, not to mention that her body faces the immeasurable rigors of being caught up in violent rapids, hurtled down mountain tops, crashed into trees and rocks, and just about any other forms of harm the oppressively cruel environment can inflict on her.  When she does commit her first kill against one of Vogel's grunts in self defense it's not one of those glory murders that's sensationalized or celebrated.  She's emotionally broken by the severity of her actions, but it also helps her develop a tough exterior and attain a stunning lethality with, for example, a bow and arrow later on.

That's perhaps what's so special about what Vikander brings to this iconic role: A sense of world weariness and internalized fury, but also a sense that this Lara is still capable of feeling rage and pain, which wasn't really apparent at all in the pervious two films.  Vikander, at a first glance, may not be an ideal choice for a battle hardened and kick ass action hero with her small stature and porcelain beauty, but she nevertheless acclimates herself flawlessly into the mind, body, and spirit of this character (it also helps that she gained twenty pounds of muscle and looks ridiculously cut and virtually fat free to sell the illusion).  This Lara doesn't have the statuesque frame, though, of the Amazon-like Jolie, but Vikander arguably gives a much more nuanced and gritty authenticity to her portrayal of the character, which compliments the striped down aesthetic and tone of the production as a whole.  And when Lara is thrown into the lion's den, so to speak, and goes into full-on survival and self preservation mode Vikander commits herself with grizzled intensity.  She's note perfect in this role.

Most importantly, TOMB RAIDER wholeheartedly honors the look and tone of its most recent video game antecedents without forgetting that, yes, this needs to be a relatively full bodied movie and not a video game.  And TOMB RAIDER is stupendously and unpretentiously entertaining throughout and contains, as mentioned, a thanklessly solid production design and finely crafted direction that's married to a fearsomely empowered lead performance.  The film has its share of weaknesses, though, like a somewhat underwritten villain (granted, he's an icy reflection of Lara's own father in the sense that he too is an absentee parent with children he's abandoned for his perceived greater good of hunting down Himiko) as well as a very late breaking plot twist that strains credulity, but mercifully doesn't derail the film altogether.  The dialogue present throughout is a mish mash of clunky adventure film exposition dumping to help propel the plot forward.  Still, TOMB RAIDER is a far cry better than I was frankly expecting and is a finer video game film adaptation than we have any right in expecting at this troublesome stage for the genre.  

It might be the CITIZEN KANE of video game movies.  

Just maybe.  Relatively speaking. 

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