You don’t want to be crossing Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie). Not only does she maintain an advanced arsenal in her Buckinghamshire mansion, train rigorously in martial arts, leap from tall buildings, shoot with deadly aim, and look like a Bond girl in a bikini, she also has no problem punching out sharks.
This particular moment in the clumsily titled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is giddy and preposterous, and as such, one of the film’s most delightful. The entire digitized stunt takes only a few seconds: trapped deep underwater in Luna’s Tomb, where she’s been raiding an orb of some significance, Lara 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!
Jan de Bont’s sequel to Simon West’s famously incoherent original (2001) includes many such demonstrations of Lara’s resourcefulness, but this is the zaniest and, no small thing, the speediest. For the most part, the movie belabors its heroine’s prowess, under Alan Silvestri’s unimaginative technobeat. It stutters into stop-motiony slo-mo for major exploits (crashing through neon signs, two-fisted shooting, sexual liaising) and prolongs other scenes showing stunt people 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 (this more or less corresponds with her current, all-honesty-all-the-time self-promotional tour, chatting with Barbara Walters, Leno, or the women of The View, making clear that her adopted son Maddox has changed her perspective, that her 13 tattoos are variously meaningful, that she’s come to terms with herself: “I think we’re on this planet to learn about ourselves and each other”).
Lara, with more firepower at her disposal, takes a more righteously belligerent approach to her self-healing. And so, 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. Quite different from her balletic bungee routine in the first film, the session is stunning in its own right, with focus on her irate face revealing Lara’s resolve, fury, and urgency. She’s not playing.
But her business this time out is considerably less interesting than she is. Former Nobel Prize winner and “modern day Dr. Mengele” Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds) designs and sells biological weapons. His present project involves locating that orb Lara briefly held, as it is a map to Pandora’s Box, a literal container of population-decimating plague. The Chinese bandits (called Shay-Ling) who stole the orb from Lara at film’s beginning, are now in the process of delivering it to Reiss.
In order to locate the Shay-Ling, Lara cuts a deal with a former lover, Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), now incarcerated in Kazakhstan, where he performs daily calisthenics off his cage ceiling. Described as a former 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. Their “relationship issues” color the adventure slightly, primarily as metaphor: his treacheries cast Lara, rather weirdly, as equated to “England,” as the abandoned object; and Lady Croft’s stubborn and often violent autonomy (enabled, of course, by her wealth, station, and loyal servants) makes her a lively feminist.
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, swiftly edited martial arts face-offs, and strangely sparse urban populations. Their perfunctory efforts to reconcile don’t so much add drama or depth as they make you think of all the betrayals Jolie’s been talking around in interviews. Lara’s means of coping — kicking, glaring, handcuffing — seems appropriate.
At the same time, Lara is of course dealing with other stuff 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 untapped strengths (The story is so old and yet, so new: witness G.W. Bush’s use of “Africa” as one of his 16 scary words.) 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 a set that a friend of mine likened to the excessively corny Harry Potter forest) 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 Kosa (Djimon Hounsou). 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 “improve the life of the Masai” (this according to Hounsou in the press kit). But they maintain mutual respect for one another. When she drops into his jeep by parachute, Kosa asks, so playfully, “Why can’t you do anything the easy way?” (Ah yes, why indeed?) 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.