Why another Tomb Raider now? Maybe the better question, in a cinematic world that reboots Batman and Spiderman nearly as often as a bad laptop and considers the poop emoji a viable movie star, is why not?
The latest big-screen iteration of the blockbuster video game isn’t a film for the ages, but it’s actually pretty good fun; an old-fashioned treasure-island adventure tale gilded in circa-2018 wokeness (Lara Croft’s breasts no longer command a lead supporting role) and anchored by an Oscar-winning actress far more gifted than the story requires. It’s also a vast improvement on the 2001 original starring Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig — which, revisited, has the distinct whiff of late-night ’90s Cinemax: erotic slow-mo shower scenes, hokey digital effects, prancing villains with George Hamilton tans.
Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (who made tsunami nightmares come true in 2015’s acclaimed disaster-thriller import The Wave) recasts his Lara as a scrappy London girl, a bike messenger by day who can barely afford the membership fees at her local kickboxing gym — or even take down her superior opponents there. Ethereal Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who has clearly been put through the brutal pullups-and-jump-squats gauntlet of action-movie bootcamp, is tiny but powerful, an ab-rippling sprite to Jolie’s hourglass Amazonian. As Lara, she’s also vulnerable and a little lost: still mourning Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), the explorer father who vanished on a mystery quest seven years before, and trying to find a place for herself outside his vast inheritance, which she still refuses to claim.
When Lord Croft’s business partner (Kristin Scott Thomas, a perpetual class act even when she’s slumming) brings some pressing Croft Industries paperwork to Lara’s attention, she finds a cryptic message that hints at the location of his last and possibly final destination, an unpopulated island off the coast of Japan where the ancient Queen Himiko, ominously nicknamed “The Mother of Death,” lies buried. Why he cares has something to do with eternal life and an implacable grief for his late wife, but the details of it all don’t matter much. What does is that Lara is now in hot pursuit, following his clues to the Far East and enlisting a hard-drinking boat captain (Warcraft’s Daniel Wu) with his own familial connections to join her in the hunt.
The island they’re looking for does exist, though it’s no longer unpopulated; a wild-eyed prospector named Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins) has been working for years to unearth Himiko’s tomb, and not for the forces of light. The reliably loony Goggins digs into playing Matthias as a man who’s spent far too long in country (If he doesn’t love the smell of napalm in the morning, he at least likes it very much). And Vikander brings some real grace to a role that wouldn’t necessarily seem to come naturally to her; whether she’s chasing pickpockets through a chaotic Hong Kong shipyard or strangling a man with her bare hands, she does it like an actual (albeit obscenely fit) human might, not a pixelated automaton.
Uthaug also manages to work in a few genuinely cool visual tricks, though the dialogue, from a serviceable script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is strictly standard; a mix of clunky action-movie exposition and winking Indiana Jones-style humor. The final revelation easily leaves room for a sequel, which has already been floated (Vikander herself has said she’d be honored to reprise it). Though that, of course, will depend on something far more unpredictable than any Death Queen: the fickle whims of the movie-going public. B