Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)


Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is what it is, and that is not a film I would normally watch. But triggered by an urge to clean my Netflix queue and not use my brain yielded this gem. Well, not a gem exactly but also not the hardened lump of excrement I was expecting. I might even say I enjoyed it, some elements at least. The movie is campy fun, filled with bracing action but also economical in execution. Angelina Jolie doesn’t flinch in the title role and offsets some though not all of my concerns about the character, best known as the busty star of a popular video game franchise.

Since I’m unfamiliar with Lara Croft or her tomb raiding world, I was prepared to take everything at face value. So she’s a titled gentlewoman living alone, with the exception of her butler (Chris Barrie) and personal tech guy/hacker (Noah Taylor), on a vast estate inherited from her late father. Sure, that makes sense. So all nine planets (even you, Pluto) are set to align for the first time in 5000 years, possibly causing a lot of weird stuff to happen. Okay, whatever you say. So the Illuminati are trying to get their hands on a key, which is a clock, which will allow them to find two halves of a triangle, which together will give them unlimited power. Um, fine, why the hell not? Accept these truths and you are on your way to enjoying, or not hating, the movie.

It manages to keep a balance between serious action and pure silliness. The fight sequences come fast and furious, and it’s no wonder Lara is so fit. She sometimes engages in battle with nifty virtual simulation courtesy of her tech guy, but when she locks horns with Manfred Powell (Iain Glen), a member of the Illuminati tasked with retrieving the key, the action intensifies. Pursuit of the key and magical triangle things take the characters across continents. They travel to Cambodia, Italy, and Siberia, engaging in a mix of swordplay, gun fights, martial arts, and bungee dancing. The action makes good use of location and allows the story’s video game roots to show through. Occasionally these scenes drag on, but there’s enough kinetic energy to keep the film moving.

There’s also a good amount of levity, not all of it intentional. I was most amused by the droll demeanor of the sidekicks. During one intense fight when Powell’s men are trying to steal the clock from Lara’s mansion, the butler gamely gets kitted out for battle, only to miss the action. Julian Rhind-Tutt also has a small role as a kind of preening lackey that reminded me a little of Gollum and made me smile. This is a movie where ancient stone statues come to life and something called time storms, which are fiery orbs that can reverse time, are a thing, so hammy lines spoken seriously (“we’re going into the belly of the beast – and out of the demon’s ass”) come with the territory.

Jolie’s performance makes this film better than it might be. Lara Croft is clearly the product of dudes’ imagination and I’m not a fan of her needless sexualization. But if Jolie doesn’t downplay her character’s physical appeal, she at least plays up her other qualities. Lara is obviously an equal if not superior to the Illuminati, a bunch of old white dudes and cunning Iain Glen. Even James Bond acknowledges her intelligence and physical strength. Daniel Craig, testing his American accent, plays fellow tomb raider and Powell’s hired gun, Alex West. He and Lara share a history and don’t care much to hide their ongoing attraction. That lingering romance might create sparks for some, but I was more impressed that a male character in an action movie respected and deferred to a strong female protagonist. Do we still call that progress?

Released: 2001
Prod: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Colin Wilson
Dir: Simon West
Writer: Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Daniel Craig, Iain Glen, Noah Taylor, Chris Barrie, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jon Voight
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016