Friday, March 16, 2018

Tomb Raider: Stylish thrills, chills and spills

Tomb Raider (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and breif profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.18

Most big-screen adaptations of video games have been an eye-rolling waste of time, but Lara Croft always had an advantage: She was created, back in 1996, as the kick-ass female answer to Indiana Jones ... and we all know how well that franchise turned out.

Having run afoul of some young Hong Kong thugs determined to rob her, Lara (Alicia
Vikander) evades pursuit in the most flamboyant manner at hand.
Lara is similarly alive and well, in her newest cinema outing. Alicia Vikander is perfect for the part — radiating intelligence, spunk, resourcefulness and the never-say-die stamina of the Energizer Bunny — and this film should please both fans and mainstream newcomers. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug has delivered a rip-snortin’ adventure with just enough back-story and character development to mildly stretch the acting chops of a cast that treats this popcorn nonsense with respect.

Indeed, it’s marvelous to note that the current generation of upper-echelon Hollywood talent is willing to swing between serious fare and light-hearted thrills. Jennifer Lawrence continues to honor her X-Men and Hunger Games roots; Viola Davis popped up in Suicide Squad; Eddie Redmayne has embraced the Harry Potter franchise; and now Vikander has become the new Lara Croft. They’re all Oscar winners, and more power to them.

Just as every generation seems to need a new and youthful Spider-Man, Lara has been re-imagined not quite a generation after Angelina Jolie first donned the boots, shorts and tank top back in 2001 and ’03. Vikander adds a playful sparkle to the role — Jolie, good as she was, always felt a bit too grim — and this film’s script touches all the essential franchise ingredients.

We must remember that Lara is a tragic heroine, and Vikander deftly handles that duality. Lara’s cheerful exterior can’t quite mask the pain behind her eyes; as this story opens, her beloved father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has been missing for seven years. He had a habit of swanning off on unspecified “missions” that had little to do with the stuffy corporate stuff typical of his public face; he never returned from the last one.

Refusing to believe him dead, resisting entreaties from Croft Holdings solicitor Yaffe (Derek Jacobi) and business executive Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) to accept the corporate control that would make her financially secure, Lara instead lives hand-to-mouth as an underpaid East London bike courier. This position certainly sharpens her reflexes; it also leads to the film’s first way-cool action sequence, in the form of a captivating bicycle race assembled slickly by editors Stuart Baird, Tom Harrison-Read and Michael Tronick.

With resigned sorrow, Lara subsequently prepares to sign the necessary papers ... until fate dumps a Japanese puzzle box into her hands: a challenge that’s no trouble for a young woman who spent her childhood playing with such items. The box’s contents point the way to her father’s secret office, which contains details of his most recent quest: a search for the 2,000-year-old tomb and mummified remains of Queen Himiko, who — according to legend — was known as the “Mother of Death,” who rained destruction on all living things.

Richard also left instructions — in the event of his death — that all information relating to this search for Himiko should be destroyed, lest it fall into the hands of agents belonging to Trinity: an ancient evil organization that seeks control of the world.

In other words, classic myth- and tomb-laden stuff right out of the Lara Croft playbook.

Not that Lara accepts such superstitious nonsense, of course; she’s much too practical for that. But she does believe that the information will lead to wherever her father went, and so she heads off to Hong Kong, in search of a ship and the man  — Lu Ren — who chartered it on Richard’s behalf.

She finds Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), of sorts: actually the son of the man her father contacted. After a meet-reluctant moment that is typical of such stories, the two head off to her father’s last known destination: the mythical island of Yamatai, somewhere among the 6,000 such islands scattered off the coast of Japan.

No surprise: They find it. Alas, Yamatai already has been invaded by the ruthless Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and his team of gun-toting mercenaries, overseeing a team of captured sailors, fishermen and other assorted hostages. Their goal: Himiko’s tomb. Natch.

Could Vogel be an agent of — gasp, choke — Trinity?

And might he know something about Richard Croft’s fate?

Things happen fast and furiously, from this point forward, with Uthaug maintaining an impressive level of tension and excitement. He gets a terrific assist from stunt coordinator Franklin Henson, production designer Gary Freeman and a massive special/visual effects department. The resulting escapades will be eye candy for folks who loved the similarly crazed, puzzle-laden death-trap antics of The Goonies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and (of course) the two previous Lara Croft entries.

Longtime gamers also will smile at the various — and quite familiar — perils that Lara dodges, ducks beneath, jumps and swings over.

The action-packed antics work, in great part, because of Vikander’s full-throttle portrayal of the punishment that Lara endures (with never more than a few bruises). We know it’s Saturday matinee-style hokum, but Vikander’s often panicked desperation keeps us at the edge of our seats. She sells each sequence: They may be absurd, but they’re done with style.

Goggins, well remembered as Boyd Crowder from television’s Justified, makes a deliciously nasty villain. Vogel lacks Boyd’s sense of humor; this guy is a stone-faced killer who shoots first and doesn’t bother with questions. Goggins adds a note of world-weary impatience that makes him even scarier; we envision Vogel drowning kittens for sport.

West, glimpsed during numerous flashbacks, exudes paternal devotion and aristocratic responsibility. If sophisticated adventurers actually exist in our world, West’s Richard Croft certainly fits the bill.

Wu has a bit of trouble with Lu Ren’s drunken introductory scene — it feels clumsily contrived (an odd thing to say, in a film like this) — but once he settles into the role, he becomes an appropriately resourceful comrade.

Nick Frost has a droll cameo as a pawn shop dealer, and don’t depart too quickly; he returns just as the end credits roll, to help set up a final image of Vikander in an iconic Lara Croft pose.

Given that final scene, and the one before it, Uthaug clearly has set up a new franchise. Since this Tomb Raider is guaranteed to make a fortune, I’m sure Vikander will don that jungle outfit again.

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