Now that the “Charlie’s Angels” sequel has pretty much tanked, it’s up to Angelina Jolie to prove that it’s possible for an action-movie with a distaff lead to have legs, if you’ll pardon the expression, in the franchise business. And with “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” she just might pull it off. This is, quite simply, a much better movie than its predecessor. You might argue that isn’t much of a compliment, since the 2001 original was simply awful. But the fun of the new picture isn’t merely comparative. “Cradle” is, from the plot standpoint, utter piffle, but it’s staged so colorfully and moves so well that even a two-hour running-time doesn’t seem excessive.
The secret is that this time around, the makers have pretty much abandoned the video-game mentality on which the first picture prided itself, and taken their models from old movies instead. The script is basically an early James Bond adventure rewritten for a female protagonist and gussied up with elements of old Saturday morning serials. The globe-trotting scenario, which moves from the Aegean to England and China, only to wind up at Mount Kilimanjaro, is a completely absurd farrago about a mystical orb discovered in a submerged temple built by Alexander the Great, which when properly decoded will point the way to the cradle of life–the place where human existence originated. The problem is that the spot is also the repository of the opposite force–that of annihilation–which is housed in a receptacle that’s the genesis of the “Pandora’s Box” myth. Prompted not only by requests from the British government but personal reasons of revenge, our brainy, dexterous heroine seeks to retrieve the object from the clutches of the wicked Dr. Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), a Nobel-winning scientist who’s become the world’s greatest bioterrorist, and who aims to unleash the destructive powers of the box on an unsuspecting world. (Don’t ask why: the motives of supervillains like Reiss are always highly illogical.) Laura is aided in her efforts not only by her two comic assistants back home, Bryce (Noah Taylor) and Hillary (Christopher Barrie), but by ruggedly handsome agent-turned-traitor Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), whom she springs from prison and finds herself getting romantically involved with as their mission proceeds. In the final act she’s also joined by Kosa (Djimon Hounsou), an old friend who offers his wisdom and translation services during the African phase of the chase.
This is all obvious hokum that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in the nineteenth-century boys’ adventure book, but it’s served up with dash and energy by director Jan De Bont, who’s rediscovered the zest that marked his first two pictures, “Speed” and “Twister,” before evaporating in his later bombs “Speed 2” and “The Haunting.” De Bont choreographs the chain of action set-pieces of which the picture consists with real finesse, starting with the big underwater teaser (watch out for the shark) and moving through the Singapore-Hong Kong fight scenes zestfully (he pauses a mite too long only to linger over a rooftop escape flight, using some unusually colorful parachute-suits–but it’s so spectacular an effect that you can forgive him for wanting to hold onto it). Particularly impressive is the way he brusquely disposes of the necessary (but absurd) exposition in a dialogue scene between Croft and two British intelligence agents at her manor early on. He simply has the poker-faced Jolie rattle off the intricacies of the back-story without any explanation of how she divined them or the slightest recognition that the whole tale is utterly nonsensical. To have spent too much time on the absurdity would not only have bored us, but undermined our ability to suspend disbelief; by rushing over the stuff at top speed, he’s avoided the trap. The same technique works with the first appearance of Reiss; De Bont uses the trick familiar from the Bond flicks of introducing the villain by showing him brutally ridding himself of an untrustworthy associate, which spells his madness out for us in shorthand, as it were. The method keeps the doldrums in the roller-coaster ride to a minimum. In fact, the only point at which things go off track is toward the close, when the scripters–perhaps in deference to today’s audience demands for special effects–add a bit about “shadow creatures” who guard the box and are rumored to tear intruders limb from limb. When these CGI figures appear, looking like claymation refugees from a Ray Harryhausen picture, what was intended to raise tension instead deflates it, and the movie never quite recovers. Giving Lara a couple of moral dilemmas to contend with at the close was a bit of a mistake, too–especially the one regarding Terry.
Still, for most of its length this installment of the “Tomb Raider” series works nicely. Technically, apart from those misguided CGI creatures, it’s a very proficient product, with crisp cinematography by David Tattersall, an excellent production design by Kirk M. Petruccelli, and even a rousing score by the ordinarily droopy Alan Silvestri. And Jolie is quite perfect in a part that plays to her strengths and mitigates her weaknesses by calling more for physical agility and sheer beauty than any real thespian talent. (All praise to Lindy Hemming for that metallic-looking Croft costume, too–it certainly shows off her assets to great advantage.) Hinds scowls menacingly as the loathsome Reiss, and though one can imagine someone more charismatic than Butler as Sheridan, he gets by. Taylor and Barrie once again earn their share of laughs as the inept sidekicks. (One hopes, though, that writers will someday recognize that having an assault on Croft Mansion serve as a major plot twist is a terrible cliche. Maybe Lara just lives in too inviting a target.)
“The Cradle of Life” is hardly a significant movie, but it’s an expertly-crafted bit of dumb fun. As the original showed, the makers could have done a lot worse–and especially this summer, so could you.