Copyright 2003

[ August 15th 2003 ]

The newest float in the summer sequel parade belongs to Lara Croft, the swashbuckling archaeologist and British aristocrat who rose to digital stardom as the protagonist of a pioneering video game. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life emerges as just one more formulaic action film as the title character bounces around the globe in a deadly treasure hunt. The object of her search is nothing less than the original Pandora's Box, which is revealed to be some sort of intergalactic surprise package that was once the source of all life on earth but now contains the very essence of death and evil.

That's exactly the sort of weapon of mass destruction that every conscientious dictator yearns for, and the film's principal villain, a renegade biochemist played with hammy elan by Ciaran Hinds, has assembled a group of bidders who include Asian despots, Serbian war criminals and inscrutable German businessmen. Lara Croft's record on preserving important historical sites ranks with that of the Taliban; the new film finds her destroying both a long-lost Greek temple and a Chinese emperor's tomb in her quest. But she does cut a dashing figure in her silver Spandex action suit. As filled out by the sculptural beauty of Angelina Jolie, that silver suit seems to lie at the center of the game's adolescent appeal: it idealizes the female form while making it completely inaccessible, a kind of full-body chastity belt that both arouses and reassures.

Lara does have a romantic interest in the new film: an adventurer of dubious morals named Terry Sheridan, played by the up-and-coming Scottish actor Gerard Butler (who is to play the Phantom of the Opera in Joel Schumacher's forthcoming film of the musical). Lara reluctantly teams up with Terry, knowing that only he has the skills and ruthlessness to get the job done. But then there is the matter of their five-month, not-quite-extinguished love affair - unfinished business that is meant to add an edge of tension to the proceedings but mainly serves as the occasion to revive such time-honored lines as "We're two of a kind, you and I."

As directed by Jan De Bont, whose 1994 Speed helped define the summer action blockbuster, Lara Croft lopes from one action set-piece to the next without developing any real rhythm or drive. Too many of the stunts are too obviously digitally enhanced to carry much sense of danger, though there is one breathtaking moment when Lara and Terry (or rather, their stunt doubles) jump from the top of a Hong Kong office tower wearing what seem to be scuba suits equipped with tiny wings. As they sail out over the harbor, Lara Croft briefly achieves the thrill and grandeur of genuine adventure.

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