Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

“Whatever country I went to, I was trying to get local actors, instead of importing everybody,” says director Jan de Bont on the commentary track for Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. “I thought it was interesting to just get local people, get real faces that belonged to that countryside, to the country, and to that climate. It looks more real, gives it a credible, authentic feeling.” Now, he’s saying this as the wedding party in Santorini, Greece is being rocked by an earthquake, and a stone wall tumbles into the sea, such that the rocks become the film’s title via digital magic. To his credit, de Bont laughs at this juxtaposition, the silliness of lining up such action-video-game movieness with any sort of “realist” aesthetic. Still, he repeats his desire to “use real locations,” to “bring reality to this movie.” Ah well.

Following the earthquake and the plot-starting undersea temple it shakes loose, Lady Croft (Angelina Jolie) makes her magnificent entrance. Costumed in a black Bond-girl-style bikini, she roars up to a fishing boat on a jet-ski, as de Bont rather charmingly notes the stuntperson flipping it up into the air. He sighs, “Obviously, Angelina tried really hard to, you know, come to learn it as well, but it’s impossible. This thing is so heavy and so dangerous, I didn’t want her to do it, because if that would fall on her head, that would be the end of the movie, and as this was one of the first days of shooting, obviously that couldn’t happen.” Obviously.

Lara boards the boat, whereupon the exposition begins (again, de Bont is refreshingly snarky on this topic: “In the movies, it’s always really hard to know what is the best way to set up the story… to give enough information without getting tedious and boring”), laying out her interest in the undersea temple. Within seconds, she’s wearing her silver wetsuit and descending amid a sensational arrangement of pretty bubbles, swaying seagrass, bright blue water, toothy sharks, and underwater headlights. “Believe it or not,” de Bont confesses, “It’s all done dry-for-wet, meaning that there was no water whatsoever. We had the actors floating on an empty stage, on those little slats. Everything else is added.” He continues, “The shots we did on the computer look more realistic than the ones we shot in the tanks.”

And at this point, I’m pretty much in love with this guy. The respected Dutch-born cinematographer whose first directing job was Speed (and who is also responsible for the awesomely bad sequel), de Bont here reveals an appealing combination of wonder and workmanship — he has a passion for movies and thinks they can somehow look “real,” but few illusions about process.

Paramount’s DVD includes other extras, in addition to de Bont’s commentary (seven deleted and alternate scenes, such as one early scene set in the British Embassy in Nairobi, featuring Kosa [Djimon Hounsou] on the phone with Lara, dropped, according to De Bont, because it gave away too much information; a “funny scene” where Lara punches out a rescuer who has arrived somewhat late; a visit to a local market, to explain how Lara gets a “new outfit”; and an alternate, “softer” ending, where Terry dies from a “lucky” gunshot); an assortment of featurettes (on Training, Vehicles and Weapons, Stunts, Visual Effects, and Scoring), and a couple of music videos (Korn’s “Did My Time” and the Davey Brothers’ “Heart Go Faster”). But none of these (including the movie itself) is so entertaining or informative as de Bont’s remarks.

Just so, as Lara arrives in the underwater Luna’s Tomb to find a secret orb; here, water is running everywhere, de Bont observes, “Once you build a set like this, under an angle, walking in it and moving around equipment is close to impossible, but it looks fantastic!” he adds, “Obviously, I wasn’t allowed to get on this set; this was a time I had an accident with my knee and had to have some surgery. Because the set was so slippery, the insurance people didn’t allow me to get on the set at all… So I had to look at this all from outside the set on different video screens. This makes it hard for me to communicate with the actors.”

No doubt. Still, communicating with the actors seems a minor aspect of making this film. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, sequel to Simon West’s famously incoherent original (2001), conjures a preposterous storyline that takes Lara from one elaborate set to another, wearing one fabulous outfit after another. In Luna’s Tomb, she escapes collapsing columns and brutal assault by Chinese bandits, only to realize that she needs speedy transport to the surface (as the bandits have destroyed her vehicle). Floating in her silver wetsuit, her face contorted like a scary mermaid’s, Lady Croft entices a shark with a whiff of her own blood, cold cocks it, and then, as it whooshes away in a huff, she hitches a ride on its fin. Girl power, yeah!

The film is full of similar demonstrations of Lara’s resourcefulness, but this is the zaniest and, no small thing, the speediest. Too often, Cradle of Life belabors its heroine’s many skills, under Alan Silvestri’s unimaginative technobeat, stuttering into stop-motiony slo-mo for major exploits (crashing through neon signs, two-fisted shooting, sexual liaising) and prolonging other scenes showing stuntfolks in full-on action mode, as when Lara and her partner leap from a high-rise with Rocky-the-Squirrelish webby-wings, floating among shiny office buildings and billboards until they find their appointed landing spot.

These computer-enhanced physical feats — rather painfully uneven in execution and representation — are here made secondary to Lara’s personal evolution. No longer hung up on reuniting with her father or even finding a worthy mate, Lara this time is mostly mad. Her practice fighting session with trainer Hillary (Christopher Barrie) takes the form of a peculiarly brutalizing conversation: they whomp away with sticks in between questions and answers, frowning like they really don’t like each other. “She makes it look very easy,” enthuses de Bont on the commentary track, “but that’s only because of endless training she did. Oh, I wish I’d done a close-up on her butt when the stick hit her.”

In any event, having lost the orb to the Chinese bandits (called Shay-Ling), Lara is hunting the man to whom they are set to deliver it — former Nobel Prize winner and “modern day Dr. Mengele” Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds), currently designing and selling biological weapons. He needs the orb, as it is a map to Pandora’s Box, a literal container of population-decimating plague. She explains this to a passel of stunned government suits, including the following: “Nature is about balance, all the world comes in pairs: yin and yang, right and wrong, men and women. What’s pleasure without pain?” De Bont, ever helpful, notes, “That last line, of course, was never in the screenplay. That’s one of the many things that Angie came up with while shooting.”

In order to locate the Shay-Ling, Lara cuts a deal with ex Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), now incarcerated in Kazakhstan, where he performs daily calisthenics off his cage ceiling. (This scene appears as Butler’s screen test, included as an extra on the DVD, Jolie’s voice offscreen; presumably, his sweaty good looks won him the role.) Described as an erstwhile officer in the Royal Navy turned mercenary and traitor to the Empire, Terry is proud of his lack of scruples, disparaging Lara’s notorious softness in this area. His treachery to the nation sets up a strange scenario wherein Lady Lara figures as “England,” the abandoned object; at the same time, and to the contrary, her stubborn and often violent autonomy (enabled, of course, by her wealth, station, and loyal servants) makes her a lively feminist and ambiguously anti-imperialist.

Still, she needs Terry’s expertise on this point, and so they take off for China and Hong Kong, and elsewheres “East.” Here, they predictably find trouble of the exotic variety — shoot-outs amid neon-signed rooftops and terra cotta warriors, fast-cut martial arts face-offs, and strangely sparse urban populations. Lara’s means of coping (kicking, glaring, handcuffing) seems appropriate given her circumstances. Essentially, everyone she meets wants to kill her. “All the physical stuff, it’s obviously her. It feels so natural when she does all that stuff. She’s really pretty handy with knives and guns, this girl.”

At the same time that she’s having all this bang-up fun, Lara’s also compelled to deal with issues like, oh, plague. On its surface, Cradle of Life‘s explicit anxiety about a biological weapon of mass destruction sounds timely. But the specific practical and ethical issues remain undiscovered; the plot is Raiders of the Lost Ark revisited, complete with ancient legend (the plague wiped out Alexander the Great’s army, after which he hid it and the map), light peeping out of the box, and all variety of creatures and trials en route to its current location, in “Africa,” namely, Kenya.

And so, once again, white folks head to the “dark continent” to confront their deepest fears and find their unknown strengths. The village elders predictably warn Lara not to seek out the box, a secret best left unfound. She has an answer, something to do with saving the world. Besides, the admonition runs more or less counter to her raider’s credo that “Everything lost is meant to be found!”

In other words, even Lara Croft might learn a thing or two from the wise Masai. And this means that the world-traveling, linguistically diversified, superrich gorgeously outfitted Lady embodies the planet’s best future, open to someone else’s thinking, as long as it’s generally compatible with hers. The fact that the bad guys tag along for the showdown on an ooky forest set only makes her look more like the deferential, culturally sensitive savior.

Indeed, Lara’s empathy and insight are conveyed by her reunion with college classmate and enormously useful local guide Kosa. They have certainly followed different career paths: while she’s been gallivanting about the planet in search of tombs to raid, he’s gone back home, where he works to help his tribe, the Masai. As de Bont watches them drive off in Kosa’s jeep, dust billowing behind them, he muses, “This reminds me a little bit of the movie Hatari, with John Wayne” (she does look rather like a tourist). He also remarks on the performances of local tribesmen, “People who are probably going to see the movie, who have probably never even seen a movie, behave so incredibly natural, like it’s the most normal thing I the world to do. And they got it right away, Take Two, Take Three, Take Four. Never asked questions.”

The relationship between Lara and Kosa — a sustained mutual respect — means he helps her, no questions. When she drops into his jeep by parachute, Kosa asks, so playfully, “Why can’t you do anything the easy way?” Her pert answer: “Because I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.” Living up to expectations and her own record, Lara, at least, appears to know who she is. Now, if only her movies did her justice.