“Enough of this twaddle,” villain Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) remarks sagely at one point in this spectacularly bad action-adventure based on a popular video game. He then nastily blows away a small army of people, but unfortunately his wise observation goes unfulfilled; the picture lurches clumsily on for another twenty minutes before finally expiring in a welter of crummy special effects and inane escapes. Paramount Pictures has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep word on this turkey under wraps at long as possible–the studio actually went so far as to extract written pledges from reviewers promising not to post notices until opening day, an obligation yours truly has faithfully observed–but it won’t take long for poisonous word-of-mouth to spread. “Tomb Raider” makes the chaotic “Mummy Returns” looks positively cerebral; it’s the sort of mongrel movie that proves that the phrase “dog days of summer” is cinematically very apt.
Perhaps those who have played the video game will be a little less bored with the picture than the rest of us, but even they are likely to find the narrative a mess of silliness and camp. The plot has something to do with a secret group called the Illuminati who have attempted for centuries to secure a clocklike device alternately called “the key” and “the all-seeing eye” which, when mystically joined together with the two halves of a magic triangle (both secreted away in virtually inaccessible old tombs) during a combination of planetary alignments and eclipses that occur only once every 5000 years, will grant the bearer power over time and space. Unfortunately for the sect (and, as it turns out, the audience), the device is in the hands of English aristocrat Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), an exceptionally limber and energetic “tomb raider” (archeologist thief)–it’s been bequeathed to her by her late father, the adventurer Lord Croft (Jon Voigt). When Powell, the group’s enforcer, finds this out, he steals it from the heroine in the first of the picture’s elaborately stupid set-pieces, and soon he, assisted by Lara’s rival tomb raider (and romantic interest) Alex West (Daniel Craig), sets out to recover the triangle pieces in time for the eclipse which just happens to be imminent. Many confrontations, double-crosses and supposedly comic episodes ensue as Lara, with the supremely inept help of her officious butler Wilson (Leslie Phillips) and a live-in computer genius named Bryce (Noah Taylor) who makes robots for her to do practice battle with, enters the fray in tight-fitting garb to foil Powell’s nefarious plot. There’s an explosive finish that uses the same reversal-of-time twist that the original “Superman” did back in 1978. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a worse one now.
None of this makes the slightest shred of sense, even on the most juvenile level. When the ghost of Lord Croft appears deep into the picture to explain in excruciating detail just what the whole deal with the “key” and the triangle is, the endless stream of gobbledegook is so ludicrous that it would have shamed the scribblers who penned Republic serials back in the forties, and Voight delivers it with a portentous ripeness that is the essence of ham. (Unhappily, the effect is much less amusing than his outrageous turn in “Anaconda.”) What’s especially bewildering is that, even on the script’s own puerile level, all the danger could easily have been avoided had Croft simply destroyed the key in the first place, or at least not timed its discovery by Lara to coincide with the astronomical event that’s its necessary complement. Of course, then there would have been no movie–a circumstance devoutly to be wished.
As it happens, of course, “Tom Raider” does exist–more’s the pity–and it’s an astonishing waste. Simon West directs, and easily shows the same degree of skill and taste as in his earlier triumphs, “Con Air” and “The General’s Daughter.” With the right touch, mindless hokum like this can be enjoyable nonsense, as Spielberg showed with the “Indiana Jones” flicks; but West doesn’t have it. Jolie, straight from her completely undeserved Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted,” proves a thoroughly charmless heroine. She looks anorexic and acts like a smug but sulky reject from a high-school talent show. (West does have a keen eye for where her talent lies, however: in a sequence set in the frigid Siberian wastes, where everybody else is shivering, she doesn’t even bother to button her coat, lest her attributes be obscured.) The supporting cast, from Voight on down, is dreadful; it’s especially disheartening to see Taylor, who was so fine in his early roles and as the young David Helfgott in “Shine” (he should have won as Oscar for that performance), reduced to playing a grubby nerd bereft of a single amusing line. (Is his name–Bryce–a nod to the brainy character from “Max Headroom”?) Even technically the picture is a disappointment. The scenes of derring-do are bad mixtures of “The Matrix” and “The Mummy,” and one–involving some animated stone warriors, along with a sword-wielding giant Buddha that couldn’t be more tasteless if an army of Taliban fanatics were recruited to destroy it–compares unfavorably, despite all today’s technical wizardry, with those that Ray Harryhausen contrived for pictures like “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts” four decades or so ago.
One can put the nails to the coffin of “Tomb Raider” by agreeing with a sentiment that Taylor’s Bryce utters in its very first act. “This is a disaster,” he opines. The only way one can eke any amusement from the movie is by treating it as a parody of itself. But the wiser course is simply to bury it–before the stench overwhelms us all.