Copyright 2000

[ October 24th 2000 ]

Every great adventure must, by definition, contain some element of risk. If that's true, then Simon West, Angelina Jolie, Paramount, Mutual Films, and Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin are all having one hell of an adventure right now, because they're attempting what has been seemingly impossible up until now: they are trying to make a great film based on a video game. And the crazy thing is, they just might pull it off.

To be honest, I had no expectations when I picked up the TOMB RAIDER script. This thing's been through a lot of hands on its way to the screen, and there are whole takes that got chucked out along the way. I remember when '80s action guy Steven E. DeSouza was taking a crack at it. I remember a couple of other permutations over the years. But when I finally got my hands on the shooting draft of the script, I didn't recognize any of the names on the title page. P. Massett & J. Zinman, with revisions by Laeta Kalogridis and more revisions by Simon West. Ah. Simon West. Okay.

CON AIR and THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER. Got it. Not exactly a resume that fills me with confidence. Still, anyone can flounder without the right material. He's certainly not a terrible filmmaker. I cracked the first page of the script totally open to whatever I might find. Right away, it's apparent this is the director's draft. It's an incredibly visual script, every angle laid out, all the camera moves built in.

We start in Venice, where we're introduced to the forces of darkness in the film. One of the tricks in crafting a large-scale adventure movie is making sure your villains are worthy opponents for our hero. In this case, MANFRED POWELL is addressing a secret council of the ILLUMINATI, and a ticking clock is set in place that sets a sense of urgency from that moment on.

I'd say the secret society that runs the world is a suitably daunting foe for Lara Croft, and they're etched in quickly, efficiently, just before we smash cut to Lara in the middle of a life and death battle with a dangerous droid. It's a wicked, rough first fight scene, and when it's revealed that we're in Croft Manor, that she's actually training, it's surprising because of just how ferocious the training was. Lara doesn't play nice. She doesn't even know how to play nice. BRYCE (set to be played by the gifted Noah Taylor from FLIRTING, SHINE, and ALMOST FAMOUS) is the guy who handles the tech end of things for Lara, and he comes in to check out how badly she's beaten his machines up.

As they interact, HILLARY comes into the room, her butler, and the three of them bounce off each other verbally. Lara's closed off, sarcastic to a fault, and at first I thought it was just going to be all hollow attitude, a throwback to the '80s style of writing these characters. I was wrong. By page 10, we've introduced the memory of Lord Croft, Lara's father.

The casting of Jon Voight isn't just smart; it's freakin' inspired. Lara Croft's father is famous, a standout in her field. There's a close bond between the two of them, but there's also a remove. He's not around. It sounds like it should be fairly easy for Jolie to get in touch with her inner Lara. This script is first and foremost about Lara coming to some sense of peace with the loss of her father. This entire adventure serves only to take Lara to the next step, to get her over this particular pain.

Loss informs her every choice in the movie, and it's one of the things that elevates the material, that gives it some heft and resonance. We see that Lara's slightly unhinged in time. She lives in her memories of her father, keeping him alive in that way, mulling over each moment they had together. It's almost as if she's looking for clues, trying to figure out some way to reverse his death, as if the answer to all her pain is waiting for her to stumble over it.

There's also the sort of nimble wit that informs everything. When Lara's considering options for her next assignment, she opens a file and sees pictures of Egypt, sand, a pyramid. Right away, she tosses it aside, a welcome sight for anyone who's seen the Indy films and the new MUMMY and, well, pretty much any film with an archaeologist in it since Dr. Jones was introduced in '81. No Egypt. No sand. Thank god. Lara's next adventure ends up finding her when she is enjoying the first stage of a rare astronomical alignment.

Something inside Croft Manor begins to tick, some forgotten hidden artifact. It's almost as if the alignment has set off an alarm. What Lara finds when she follows that simple ticking just might be that answer she craves, that key to making her whole life better. There's a rich supporting cast of characters here, and one of the things I have to respect about the way West is building this film is casting. Noah Taylor, Angelina, Voight... that's it for recognizable names.

Daniel Craig. Leslie Phillips, Iain Glen... these aren't names I know. But I hope they were cast because they managed to flesh out the characters here. Don't try to dazzle me with big stars. Instead, fill out this world. Sell me on the fantasy and the epic nature of things, and let me just get to know these characters. I like Taylor, but I guarantee audiences are going to think of him as Bryce from this point on if the film works. He's like Q, but a little more markedly eccentric, and young enough to be an interesting foil for Croft. When she's in the field, he's always there, in her ear, by radio uplink.

As a result, theirs is the relationship that really stands out after the action scenes. ALEX MARRS is a great supporting character, a guy who wishes he was 1/10th as resourceful and skilled as Lara is, who frequently finds himself five steps behind her in the field. There's an electric sort of sexual energy between he and Lara when they meet at an auction in the film, and again when their paths cross in Cambodia. There's Manfred Powell, the main Illuminati bad guy in the film, who has a great sort of antagonistic sparring energy with Lara. There's WILSON, an old friend of her father's who helps Lara figure out part of the mystery that her father has left behind.

Eventually, Lara's artifact brings her into the path of the Illuminati, who only have a certain amount of time to bring two pieces of an ancient puzzle together to create an item of immeasurable power. Sounds sort of RAIDERS, doesn't it? And in a way, it is. But this doesn't strike me as a direct riff, the way THE MUMMY was. As much as I enjoyed the spirit of that film, it's a cartoon. It's fluff.

TOMB RAIDER plays a little harder, and it plays a little deeper. I was surprised by how much I invested in Lara and her father by the end of the film. There's difficult choices that she makes that mark her as a hero of real conscience and strength, rather than just a babe in shorts who's good at killing thugs. Don't get me wrong... this isn't some talky chick flick by any stretch of the imagination.

There's several great action set pieces, including a clever one at Croft Manor in the middle of the night when Powell's goons come looking for something and another that will take place in, on, and around the location described here. Each of them defines Lara or her relationships with Bryce, Powell, Marrs, and even her father. None of them are just action for the sake of it, and that's what intrigues me most about this film. It's like a warm-up of sorts for West's next announced picture, an update of THE PRISONER. He says he's a major fan of the show, and its influence shows in the way this film's major action beats are structured.

These set pieces are all built on clever ideas, smart in both text and subtext. Lara's got a touch of angst in the film, as befits a story driven by the memory of her dead father, but she also loves what she does. She's not Batman. There's joy in travelling the world. She's doing what her father raised her to do. More importantly, she's good at it. The world is completely open to Lara, and she knows it. She seems to attack situations with two hands, digging in, drunk on raw experience.

Jolie's got the exact right edge to play the role as written. There's something in Lara that seems almost out of control, and that makes her dangerous, and that makes her even more interesting. I've written before about how much I adore RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and in particular how much I respect Belloq as played by Paul Freeman. Bear with me for a moment as I digress.

There's a scene in the film where Indy and Belloq sit across from each other at a table in a Cairo cafe. It's just after Marion's "death," and it's my favorite quiet moment in the movie. They're both drinking, and Belloq says, "You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith.

"Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light." Indiana gives that grin that only young Harrison Ford could manage, full of menace and challenge, and says, "Now you're getting nasty." It's a great exchange, and it sets them firmly on opposite sides of the table.

Indy would never become Belloq because he's Indy. He's the good guy. Period. Well, Lara Croft never told anyone she's the good guy, so when this movie brings us to a moment that's much the same, she doesn't just crack wise and walk away. She makes a deal. And when the climax of the film comes, it's somewhere between the surreal mindgames of the last few episodes of THE PRISONER and a Sergio Leone film, with everyone looking out for themselves.

It all comes down to a standoff in The Tomb of Ten Thousand Shadows, isolated in Siberia, with everyone vying for The Power of God. The choices faced in this scene make the whole film pay off, and without giving it away, let's just say that I was unexpectedly moved by the big finish. There's a reason they didn't just pour a pair of tits into the lead role of this film. Jolie's got to go through some pretty harrowing beats to get to her final destination. She gets worked over in a serious way, and that's all right. The Lara Croft that comes out the other side is both tougher than she's ever been, and finally able to embrace some sort of life away from danger and death.

There's a great joke in the opening credit sequence involving a light floral print summer dress that is paid off beautifully by film's end, a perfect example of the kind of small detail that is layered onto every major sequence of the script. I hope West has left behind the sweaty slick chic of his Bruckheimer debut. He tried to tone it down for THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, but it was like he couldn't help himself. Neither of those earlier films was anywhere near as inventive as what he's got to work with this time. I am rooting for him to pull it off. If he does, then Paramount's got a viable franchise, Jolie's an action hero, and there will finally be concrete proof that any source material, if treated with respect, wit, and a genuine desire to entertain, can be turned into a great film.

A little birdie told me that there's going to be a major announcement in the very near future about TOMB RAIDER's official site, and there just might be some cool glimpses at the world of Lara Croft. It's worth keeping one eye... one single eye in the middle of a triangle... wide open for news about what could be next summer's coolest action kick. Until then...

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