*½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A
starring Angelina Jolie, Gerard Butler, Ciaran Hinds, Djimon Hounsou
screenplay by Dean Georgaris
directed by Jan De Bont
by Walter Chaw The weirdest thing about the pretty weird Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (hereafter Tomb Raider 2) is that the filmmakers either haven't seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or, more likely, hope that no one in the target audience has. With Angelina Jolie and her costume-enhanced bod serving as the distaff version of Harrison Ford's grizzled globetrotting heartthrob, the doubling becomes fascinating when looked at through the prism of Hollywood's (and society's, if you want to go there) hots for professorial old men and sexy young women. Consider, after all, that Indy gets eyes made at him while providing exposition in a dusty classroom (fully clothed), while Lara Croft delivers vital plot information in a rubber bikini; the dichotomy between brains and bust is pretty striking, even as the faux ancient frieze featuring the Ark of the Covenant/Pandora's Box appears to be identical, along with the dire consequences of opening the respective crates.
Lara Croft (Jolie) is an archaeologist/action heroine ported from a popular if passé video game series who, after an earthquake off the coast of Greece, discovers a long-forgotten cache once belonging to Alexander the Great and a doodad that gives the location of Pandora's Box. Lara's Belloq is Reiss (Ciarán Hinds), her Sallah-cum-Marion is Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), her Toht is Chen Lo (Simon Yam), and her Nazis are Chinese; the action is almost all blue-screened or CGI, and the exposition is at once over-simplified and bizarrely confused. There's no sense of peril for an invincible hero (see also: James Bond), no sense of excitement in stunts so dedicatedly fake, and no sense of awe inherent in invulnerable action figures walking through travelogue landscapes and computer mainframes, weightless phantoms fluttering around impossible set-pieces. For what it's worth, Jolie and Butler have a nice chemistry going and offer performances good enough to be completely out of tune with the general shoddiness of the rest of the picture. Director Jan De Bont, meanwhile, cements his status as a one-hit wonder whose lean, muscular debut Speed remains one of the better action films of the 1990s.
What's really missing from Tomb Raider 2 is any sort of depth. A film that spends so much of its first third underwater (its title graphic emerges from ruins sinking full fathom five) is composed entirely of glistening surfaces. No matter the lengths to which many will defend an anti-intellectual, disengaged approach to viewership, particularly in regards to summer blockbusters, there remains the essential truth (and Tomb Raider 2's fiscal failure speaks to this) that even without analysis, there needs to be some meat on the bone. The most memorable thing about the picture may be a scene where Croft stoically slashes her palm to attract an animated shark that she treats like a steed--memorable, I think, because it suggests vulnerability, ingenuity, and an alarming willingness to injure herself in order to survive. It suggests, in other words, the kind of complex emotional damage of the character from the equally terrible but infinitely richer Lara Croft: Tomb Raider--but only for that moment.
Paramount presents Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life in a packed special edition with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer so beautiful that it hurt the backs of my eyes. This is a compliment and not an altogether unpleasant feeling, not when black levels are this pitch or colours are this vibrant. As a movie, Tomb Raider 2 is a great advertisement for the format. The DD 5.1 surround audio is likewise flawless and all-encompassing, the sort of thing for which home theatre was invented, with every speaker used at almost every moment--whether or not the scene motivates it. Consider a short sequence in China wherein Croft and Sheridan walk down a road following an escape from the yellow peril: crunching of gravel, voice direction from left rear...to left centre...to left front, plus scattered birds and music... It's really quite amazing. For technophiles, this disc is something of a marvel. (Pan-and-scan version sold separately.)
Jan De Bont offers a feature-length commentary that's really quite enjoyable for the man's enthusiasm and knowledge--how so little of it transfers to the film would be an interesting subject for another commentary. The revelation that the early underwater sequences were shot on a dry stage and later tweaked with CGI to simulate submersion was, I confess, a total shock to me. It goes a long way towards demonstrating that good effects, like good performances, should never draw attention to themselves and that for every moment in Tomb Raider 2 that rings as patently false, there is another where the illusion is complete and, shudder, masterful. Still not a good movie, not even a well-directed film for long stretches (particularly in comparison with Speed), the picture is something of a showcase nonetheless of the technical side of the modern silver screen.
Six deleted scenes are presented non-anamorphically at 2.35:1 with optional commentary, which I believe is absolutely invaluable when considering elisions. De Bont delivers with flying colours, offering rationalizations for short cuts that run the gamut from revealing too much to time and pacing considerations. Done well, deleted scenes segments always have the potential to be the most elucidative of the particular filmmaker and the filmmaking craft in general. An alternate ending (also available with a great optional yak-track) is essentially a longer fight sequence (almost twice the length) aggressive enough to maybe have merited the film a kick-up in the MPAA rating. Though it's hard to say which to prefer, as both endings are stupid, the special feature has value as a demonstration of the difficult decisions that directors of even bad films need to make. Five featurettes are basically B-roll fluff pieces on Jolie's training regimen (she's a stud, I get it), the vehicles and weapons (recalling that Paramount refused distribution to theatres that balked at devoting a large chunk of lobby space to pimping promo partner Jeep's new car), the stunts, the visual effects, and the score.
A short screen test for Butler finds the muscular thespian performing his first scene from the film. Two music videos, one from Korn, the other from The Davey Brothers (the former featuring new footage of Jolie, the latter just shots from the movie); previews for Paycheck and the Indiana Jones box set; and a DVD-ROM archive of the film's website round out what shapes up to be a sterling presentation of a dreadful movie. Originally published: December 16, 2003.