Tomb Raider (2001)

Rating: ***
Alternate Title: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Release Date: 6/15/01
Director: Simon West
Music: Graeme Revell
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Voight

Five years after securing the film rights to Eidos Interactive's "Tomb Raider" video game series, Paramount finally delivers the goods. Unfortunately, like most licensed franchises, the film came about two years too late to camp on the popularity of the series which has now run out of ideas and sunken into obscurity. It's hard for me to objectively review this film, since I'm so devoted to the principals and mythology surrounding the series and have extremely strong opinions about how the material should be handled. Quite simply, if I had been more serious about pursuing a career in film, this would have been the film that I was born to make. This is not a film that I take lightly, and my expectations for the treatment of the material are unreasonably high.

First of all, there's the casting of "Tomb Raider's" leading lady, Lara Croft. For years this had been a feverish arena for debate, rumors, and speculation, with several actresses allegedly being signed to the role, including Elizabeth Hurley, Sandra Bullock, Demi Moore, and most recently Catherine Zeta-Jones. But it was Angelina Jolie who finally came out on top, and her portrayal of the sassy and sophisticated adventurer is near perfection. I applaud any woman who would devote herself to such an aggressive and physically demanding role, and it's Lara's soul and unflinching spirit that alone fuels the "Tomb Raider" mythos. But let's get on with the film, shall we?

The plot revolves around two pieces of a mystical relic that will grant god-like powers to its owner. The ancient and mystical order of the Illuminati wants to wield this power, and it just so happens that a certain Ms. Lara Croft has in her possession the key to finding the relics. And so the chase is on as Lara and the head baddie, Mr. Powell, travel to Cambodia, Venice, and Iceland to fulfill their quests. Naturally, Ms. Croft gets the upper hand and saves the world from annihilation at the hands of the power-mad Powell.

Surprisingly, it doesn't suck. Although overly simplistic, it's consistently entertaining and full of attractive eye candy. Although I would have handled the material much differently, the film remains true to the spirit of the games and the legend of Lara Croft hasn't been harmed or compromised in any way - a considerable achievement considering how many other comic book and video game adaptations have been so badly mishandled. Angelina Jolie does a splendid job with the material and captures all the nuances of the character. She's smart, she's sexy, and she's tough, and she knows it. (and I love that thing she does with her eyebrow!) Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the film spends way too much effort drawing attention to Lara Croft's prominent chest, which sadly cheapens the overall presentation. Additionally, her breasts look laughably fake, and I'd hate to see what kind of harness Ms. Jolie had to wear to provide the shape and support for those suckers.

In addition to her distinctive (and ridiculous) boobs, other classic elements from the game show up as well. In the opening training sequence, Lara executes all of her signature moves which quickly and tidily gets them out of the way. Then of course there's the Croft Mansion and the traditional "tomb raiding" elements of tropical jungles, arctic wastelands, secret societies, and supernatural relics. It was also quite satisfying to see the multi-armed Shiva from "Tomb Raider III" show up as an adversary.

Naturally, where the film suffers the most is in the story department. It's a no-brainer adventure, but at least it's not confusing or insulting like some of the other summer fare that's out this year. As far as being a female action film, it's an admirable attempt. It's got all of the right elements and is definitely pointed in the right direction. Like any good female action film, the men in the film are totally ineffective idiots. Unfortunately, a side effect of this is that Lara is so incredibly superior to everyone in the film that she has no one to physically or intellectually challenge her. The entire supporting cast offers little more than set dressing and the villains aren't even remotely threatening - or even interesting for that matter. Thankfully, the men in the film realize and accept their inferiority to Ms. Croft, and the ridiculous and offensive male chauvinistic banter so typical of similar Hollywood fare is relatively absent as a result.

As far as stunts and effects go, the film is adequate. Nothing really stands out, but nothing is hopelessly embarrassing, either. Naturally, everything is over-the-top and a bit campy, and the effects and action sequences reflect that. One thing that left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth was the final duel between Lara and Powell. As a martial arts brawl it is pretty well choreographed and executed, but Lara's kickboxing technique is spoiled when she resorts to head-butting the bad guy. Head-butting is absurd to begin with, and I'm always reminded of an argument Cindy Crawford had with the director of "Fair Game" (1995) about her fight scenes, which was "no woman in her right mind would ever head-butt someone," and I have to agree. Typical of Hollywood fight cinematography, the camerawork is claustrophobic and the editing is frustratingly obtrusive. It's the one time in the film where Lara is physically overpowered by someone, so it should have been handled with more dramatic flair, cinematic precision, and attention to detail. But that's just me. The bottom line is that "Tomb Raider" is an exciting and mindless summer actioner that's fun, sexy, and easy to enjoy.