Recently on the TV news magazine Dateline, an interview with Angelina Jolie was introduced as if it would provide rare insight into this provocative, sensational celebrity. And dear Angelina delivered. The awkwardly edited fragments of her conversation with Ann Curry showed her defending her much-gabbed-about her sexuality (with husband Billy Bob Thornton and with “women”) and dissing the press for making such a big deal about the time she kissed her brother on the mouth at the Academy Awards (her brother, she reported, is suffering emotional distress from the overkill). Then, she actually teared up on camera when asked why she wears a vial of Billy Bob’s blood around her neck. And when Curry leaned forward with her finger stuck out as if to put it on that vial, Jolie pulled back with a start, as if from poison. No touching!
Such devotion, such vulnerability. It was awful. But still, I was glad to see Jolie on TV, and I frankly don’t care a whit about her vial. She’s perpetually compelling to see, whether in her signature harried mode (which she nailed in HBO’s Gia and for which won a Best Supporting Oscar, in Girl, Interrupted), or in her cooler vein (Hackers, Foxfire). Newly happy, she says that she’s wrestled with her demons and feels ready to deal with the world. It’s too bad that this dealing includes shilling a movie whose marketing campaign features a game called the Taco Bell Quest.
This movie is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, directed by Simon West (the man responsible for The General’s Daughter). Of course, Jolie plays the brilliant, imperturbable, long-legged, short-pantsed Lara. Fabulously wealthy, super-lean, and almost unnervingly confident, she’s a raider of tombs and photojournalist (though, aside from a brief mention of this last, there’s no sign that she works at anything resembling a real job). She’s crafty, she’s slinky, she’s seductive as hell. But mostly, Lady Croft is Angelina Jolie playing a character who’s based on a character who is best known for kicking ass in a video game and allowing all kinds of excitingly slippery identification. This is a great trick: where no one actually wants to look like those thuggy cretin shooters in Doom, a lot of Tomb Raider players want to be Lara Croft and fuck Lara Croft, usually at the same time. If the movie’s Lara doesn’t much resemble the video game version, that’s okay too. Jolie brings her own devices.
The movie’s Lara is introduced in mid-battle. The shadows loom, the soundtrack kicks, the guns blaze—and suddenly, Lara’s dashing and leaping, somersaulting and diving, locked in dire combat with a giant killer robot. After a few minutes of these exertions, our girl literally pistol-whips the robot into submission, its limbs flailing, her face set in grim determination. And then it turns out that this contraption—so gleaming, so vrooming and menacing—is named Simon. And Simon has been programmed by Lara’s employee, the computer-geek-boy Bryce (Noah Taylor). Indeed, this snazzy opening beat-down scene is part of her in-house training program, which she coolly undertakes in the lower floor of her estate mansion. How po-mo is that? Lady Croft gets to play something like a character in her own life-size video game.
It turns out that she plays a lot of games, I suppose because she has nothing better to do, being so rich and well-educated and privileged in every conceivable way. She raids a few tombs, fights off mysterious intruders, and mows down a platoon of stone monkeys zapped to life by an ancient force. Observes one competitor, she does all this not for the money, but for the “glory” (apparently this is a good thing). But then, she can afford to take such an attitude, living in a huge mansion and being looked after by her devoted minions, Bryce (who lives in an Airstreamer on the estate grounds) and her kevlar-vested butler Hillary (Chris Barrie). Her leisure time is similarly high-energy: she spends it whipping about London streets on her Dark Angel-ish motorcycle, practicing her bungee-ballet, and tearing up whenever she visits a memorial on her estate that marks her father’s disappearance way back in 1985. This lingering dedication to her dad jumpstarts the plot, such as it is, involving a clock that he’s left hidden in the mansion for her, a secret key to some kind of universe-altering power, and a group of mean men called the Illuminati, who naturally want to locate said key and alter said universe. Their version of the plot is dull and takes a long time to be explained: they drone on about clocks ticking and planets aligning in a way that explains nothing so much as really, they just like to hear themselves talk.
Lara has other concerns. She wants to find out what happened to her father, Lord Richard Croft (played by Jolie’s dad Jon Voight in a couple of flashbacks and then in a corny Contact-like father-daughter reunion scene, during which she . . . tears up). To achieve this goal, Lara faces off with Illuminati member and clearly feminized Manfred Powell (Iain Glen), who indulges in dialogue so bad that even Lara notices. (In a bizarre effort to scare her, he offers up this gem: “My ignorance amuses me,” which inspires the usually dour Lara and Bryce to spend a jolly minute imitating him and yucking it up.) Not that it matters, but Manfred is assisted by Alex West (Daniel Craig), Lara’s tomb-raiding colleague who’s sold out for—horrors!—money. It turns out that Lara’s dad has in fact left her that secret key, which will recharge a sacred (broken) triangle, which in turn allows its possessor to manipulate time. And well, everyone wants in on the action. (The actual effect for this plunging in and out of time dimensions looks like a similar idea in one of Star Trek‘s original Kirkisodes, where the Enterprise crew leaps back and forth in time through a tunnel—lucky for Lara, she does not meet Joan Collins).
Soon enough, everyone is looking for the pieces of this triangle and gallivanting around the globe, from the Angkor Wat tombs in Cambodia (where Lara takes time out to commune with monks) to the boonies in Siberia (where she communes with huskies—the girl is incredible, what else can I say?). But really, who cares about such exotic and expensive-to-shoot backdrops? Let’s be real: the main reason for the film’s travelogue sections is to show off Lara’s superswank wardrobe and her beauteous body: when in Siberia (which is actually Iceland), everyone else is bundled up in parkas and sweaters, but Lara’s long coat flaps open to show her, um, tight-fitting T-shirt. Sure, she’s able to leap off waterfalls like the Fugitive, outrun cascading explosions, decipher cryptic clues given to her by pretty little “native” children, and easily outsmart her male competitors at every turn. But catch those spandex pants!
And so, it seems that the movie-Lara is not so different from the video-game-Lara after all. It’s not so simple as sex appeal; shoot, Julia Roberts has that. Lara has something different. The simplistic reading of her appeal is, according to the film’s press kit, that on the one hand, she’s a straight boys’ ideal object of lust, and on another, she’s a straight girl’s role model. Sounds good, but this formulation only gets it half right, omitting the shifting (and queer) viewer positions that drive both the game and the film-viewing. In fact, Tomb Raider the movie doesn’t fudge on this question, but comes right out loving the ambiguous sex and sexuality of Miss C. Consider the calculated flawlessness of the scene where Lara rides/steers a giant ramrod that’s supposed to connect exactly with a tiny point on a magical mystical statue, in order to release the statue’s long-stored amazing power. As the men around her watch in awe, Lara directs the point accurately and with the appropriate amount of force, so that the ramrod hits and boom! the little hole in the statue emits a gushing shower of well-lit “power.”
This spectacular image of androgynous, self-stimulating sexual excess speaks directly to the wonder and threat of Lara Croft, so adept at masculine and feminine wiles, and every wile in between. She can play all the parts: that’s why you love her. The story is boring, the characters are lifeless, and the CGI effects are too often unimpressive (especially the climactic exploding-tomb scene, which is just dreary). It’s not enough to make the film work, but Angelina Jolie as Lady Croft is a most special effect.