Tomb Raider (2018)
Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a daughter of privilege who, nonetheless, feels compelled to live a scrappy, streetwise lifestyle. She works as a bicycle-riding delivery girl and spends her spare time mastering her martial arts, displaying her pith and admirable abs in gym beat-downs. Lara lives this way because her aristocrat banker father Lord Richard (Dominic West) vanished when she was a child, driven off into the great unknown by some compulsive and secretive urge. As she refuses to claim his property in case he’s still alive, she has instead honed herself into a fighter and survivor. After a brush with the law when she crashes into a police car whilst engaged in an illegal street race, her father’s top executive Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to bail her out, and talks her into finally taking control of the Croft estate. Just before she can lay pen to paper, Lara is handed one her father’s beloved Japanese puzzle boxes by family lawyer (Derek Jacobi), and finds it contains clues that finally reveal to her just what he was doing when he vanished.
In the course of locating the tomb of the ancient Japanese Empress Himiko, a supposed witch with apocalyptic powers, Richard was searching for an island in a region off Japan dubbed the Devil’s Sea, and trying to fend off an insidious organisation he called Trinity, who also sought the prize. Lara tracks down the boozy skipper of a rust-bucket named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose father disappeared with hers, and she uses both cash and imploring to get his aid. But their ship is smashed on rocks near the island as a heavy sea comes on, and the shipwrecked duo are taken prisoner by heavies led by Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a Trinity employee who’s been searching for Himiko’s tomb himself, and claims to have killed both Richard and Lu’s father. But Lara soon finds that Richard is still alive, living in hiding and unsure if the version of his daughter he sees is real or hallucination.
Lara Croft has come a long way from her days as a knobbly computer game protagonist beloved of hormonal teen boys. Somehow she’s evolved into a big-screen franchise fulcrum who’s been incarnated by not one but two Oscar-winners, with a cache that still pretty rare in pop culture: an instantly recognisable, heroic female character. I admit it, I anticipated this latest movie, a complete retooling of a property originally dragged onto the big screen in 2001 with Angelina Jolie playing the role. Jolie’s Croft was dull and featureless, a vacuum-packed Amazon put together by a marketing team who had read the memo about James Bond’s confidence but forgot to include any equivalent to his peculiarities, and her films were lightweight in exactly the wrong way. Following the lead of the more recent editions of the computer game series, this revision portrays a tough and wiry Lara who’s a venturesome bruiser. Casting an actress of Vikander’s calibre in the role is but one choice in a quest to remake her as a truly human figure destined nonetheless for quasi-mythic stature.
Given the generally, reliably terrible nature of video game adaptations, there might have been few reasons to have much faith in this project, and the idea of doing a gritty reboot is hardly original, to say the least. But Lara as a figure seemed particularly ripe for it, with her line of work as a present-day Indiana Jones acolyte, and her life story, defined and galvanised by her losses: there was obviously the raw material for a great action-adventure movie in it all. Vikander and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons do a good job early on here in setting her up as a character with not just the regulation qualities of resilience and physical prowess but a slightly skewed sense of humour and a general aura of wistful filial regret that drives her to test herself. This urge proves, although she did not realise it, to have been a long and rigorous training process for just such an undertaking as she makes to locate her father and battle evil. Which is, again, not at all original, but Tomb Raider proves admirable in its willingness to pretend it is, knowing that a great deal of the thrill in such an origin-story recounting lies in the process of seeing a hero evolve from the commonplace to the extraordinary.
Norwegian director Uthaug has been making films since the 2000s: his 2015 disaster movie The Wave gained him Hollywood’s attention, although Escape (2009), a feminist medieval chase movie, could be the more immediate kin in his oeuvre to this. Uthaug quickly demonstrates authentic action chops in the street race, in which Lara volunteers to be the “fox” in an organised tournament London’s army of delivery bike-riders habitually organise, in order to win a pooled cash prize. This scene is a dashing parade of great little stunts and snappy editing, one that proves Lara’s gift for quick-thinking and inspired eluding as well as general athletic skill. Uthaug uses this, and a later scene in which Lara defies some would-be backpack-snatching crims in the Hong Kong docks, to blend character development with action, adroitly nudging Lara towards her ultimate status as legendary adventurer in stages through fairly believable situations. Her new habit of wielding a bow and arrow has been trucked in from the more recent games but pinched in turn from the Hunger Games films; and yet Uthaug makes more, visually and dramatically, from the act of going to battle with such a precision-demanding and intimately violent tool than any of that series’ directors ever managed.
Once Lara and Lu ride out to see the stage seems set to move into more a more familiar grab-bag of special effects and spectacle. But Uthaug does his damndest to keep things rooted in something like the real world. The shipwreck sequence seems modelled on one in The Guns of Navarone (1961), and the film’s main cliffhanger (literally) set-piece comes when Lara is almost swept over a waterfall only to clutch onto the wing of a rusted-out World War II bomber, a flimsy raft that crumbles apart about her. This is a classically-staged blend of old-fashioned stunt work and special effects used to enhance rather than dominate, conceptually simple yet clever in the way Lara has to constantly improvise as each snatched chance for survival segues into another deadly situation. The fights have an intimate, bruising authenticity: Uthaug seems to have learnt the only good lesson from Ken Branagh’s similar birth-of-the-hero tale, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) in staging his protagonist’s first true life-and-death struggle as a gruelling, self-mortifying thing as Lara is obliged to drown a foe in a puddle of muddy water. The first killing is an act that costs something, no matter how necessary. Another terrifically physical scene is a more subtle one, as Lara infiltrates the villains’ camp armed with her bow, performing a delicate-toed dance around and amidst her foes.
It’s often dismaying to see fine actors in contemporary franchise fare where they’re often deployed so uselessly, but Tomb Raider knows the value of casting and depends on the conviction of its performers, from Vikander of course but also West and Goggins. Goggins in particular does a great amount with very little as Vogel, captain of a band of mercenaries who specialise in enticing labourers and immigrants into their web to use as slave labour in their efforts to locate Himiko’s tomb. His Vogel is a sweaty, faintly desperate villain who’s been obliged to spend as long on the island as Lara’s been without his father, obeying the voice of his mysterious employer on the satellite phone, and his precisely focused, punitive rage with Lara and her father for every second they cost him before he can finally return home to his family. There’s a fascinating note of rhymed pathos in this, although of course Vogel’s still such an amoral heel that his inevitable comeuppance is still to be relished. West wields grizzled gravitas effortlessly, and he and Vikander give them film an emotional essence that’s rare in this sort of thing.
Vikander, who, since first catching the eye in Anna Karenina (2012) and has since gone from strength to strength as a performer, makes Lara a voluble figure, hardy and determined but not beset by a dead-weight of sullen stoicism, rather wielding a quicksilver emotional palette. There’s no reluctant-hero bullshit we have to wade through either, but rather the process of Lara constantly finding that she’s up to the challenge even to her own surprise. Where Tomb Raider runs into trouble is on a more straightforward dramatic level. Ever since Super Mario Bros. (1993) it’s been a compulsory lesson for adapters of video games that they must reproduce an aspect of the game play and aesthetic rather than simply use a game as a basis for an imagined universe, a rule that’s not terribly productive however, particularly when it pays off in grotesque monstrosities like Warcraft (2016). Uthaug reproduces some of the tropes and the linear progression of challenges in penetrating Himiko’s tomb in a manner that’s true to the games and ironed effectively into the story. But it’s also a little painfully indebted to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). The writers commendably avoid building to any kind of regulation CGI light show, tossing out all but the faintest hint of the supernatural forces evinced in the game in exchange for a demystified approach, but leaving themselves with nowhere to go in terms of delivering a clever climax: instead we just get a punch-up above a drop of moderate height.
In spite of the filmmakers’ efforts to stay earthy in their action staging, there’s still too much CGI apparent in the film. There are occasional cutaways to Lu organising his fellow slave-labourers into a force with the aim of going to aid Lara, but then Uthaug forgets about them, when he might have used their separate battles to offer an effective counterpoint to the tomb raiding. The writers get their focal points right, but there’s a lack of the kind of embroidery in supporting characters and zest of dialogue that truly makes a great adventure movie. I did like the ultimate punch-line about Lara’s realisation of Himiko’s real secret and its commentary on her own identity and aspirations. Hollywood used to turn out serials and B-movies pitched on the same level of this 60 or 70 years ago on a weekly basis (and Hong Kong cinema much more recently) that were more artfully written if nowhere near so well-produced. Tomb Raider also got the memo about not ogling female action heroines, a nicety that has an insincere side considering the model’s spank-bank roots and coming as it does at a time when female moviegoers are actively encouraged to ogle male stars in rituals of discarding shirts to display musculature absurdly and unhealthily manufactured. Vikander’s gym-razed muscles are momentarily celebrated in a fitness mag fashion.
Not that this is at all a lamentable issue, but the actual problem is that all forms of sexuality and hopes for romanticism seems to have gone out the window along with pin-up appeal. James Bond and a panoply of male heroes can still bone their way around the world but female heroes still must be vaguely untouchable, nominally for fear of undercutting their independence but really, I think, because of a latent reflex of moralism. Long gone are the days when Bogie and Bacall or Weissmuller and O’Sullivan or, hell, even Banderas and Zeta Jones could conflagrate in the context of an action movie. Instead, it’s the father-daughter tale that’s the real love affair here, which is both affecting as far as it goes but also rather lame, especially considering that this kind of sub-plot almost always ends in exactly the way it does here. Lara’s connection with Lu as another forlorn orphan falls by the wayside. Still, after suffering through the excruciating non-triangle of the Hunger Games films maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The real achievement here is that Tomb Raider effortlessly sketches a great female action hero without constantly coming across like it’s ticking off a checklist of demographic appeal and internet commentariat talking points. As much as it might sound like faint praise, Tomb Raider is the best video game adaptation made to date. More than that, it’s a quality genre film in its own right.