Sunday 22 April 2018

Tomb Raider by Robertson-Dworet et al

Although I admire Angelina Jolie, the previous Lara Croft movies were a complete farrago (The Oxford English Dictionary defines a farrago as a "confused mixture" — perfect, eh?). 

But when I heard that a rebooted franchise was on its way with Alicia Vikander in the title role, I was frankly a little excited.

Vikander is a wonderful actress. I first saw her, with Mads Mikkelsen, in the splendid A Royal Affair and she was recently a highlight of The Man from UNCLE. And it turns out she's terrific in the new Tomb Raider, certainly the finest thing about the whole movie.

The film is directed by the Norwegian Roar Uthaug, a really cool name but not as cool as Geneva Roberston-Dworet, who co-wrote the first draft of the script with Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman). She also co-wrote the final draft with Alistair Siddon.

(In the wacky world of screenplay credits "co-wrote" doesn't necessarily mean any of these people ever actually met...)

The movie begins cannily with Lara as an underdog. She takes a licking in the boxing ring and then we see her in her crappy job as a Deliveroo rider (okay, it's not called Deliveroo, but we all know what they're getting at).

The film's best sequence is probably one that takes place in this section — a bicycle chase with Lara as the fox pursued by a pack of other cycle couriers as the hounds, in an attempt for her to win a much needed cash prize.

There's another good action scene when Lara is at the docks in Hong Kong and some street punks rip off her rucksack. Naturally Lara isn't about to stand for that... 

And another particularly fine one involving rapids, a waterfall, and the rusting fuselage of a Japanese World War 2 bomber. Lara saves herself from plunging over the waterfall by clambering onto the remains of the bomber... and it immediately begins to fall apart. ("Really?" says our disgusted heroine.)

Now, you might notice something about all of these action scenes... They're all pretty down to earth. They are not hugely fantastical far-fetched special effects extravaganzas. Those come in the tomb raiding section of the picture, which is for my money absolutely the worst bit of it.

I was also peeved about how the production design ruined a plot point. Lara receives a clue which involves checking out the "first letter" on her father's tomb. The way the tomb has been built, the carving on it reads "In the memory of Lord Richard Croft" — so the intended first letter, the ""R" in Richard, is actually the 18th...

But, like I said, Vikander is the best thing here. Gamine, gutsy and gorgeous, she is endlessly watchable.

In contrast, a distinguished supporting cast seem oddly like underpowered clones of themselves — I wasn’t even sure that Dominic West was Dominic West or that Walton Goggins was Walton Goggins. I thought they were look-alikes. 

However, there is a good bit where Goggins, as the ruthless, murderous bad-guy-in-chief Vogel, reveals that he really just wants to get home to his wife and kids. (The photo of them on his desk is a particularly nice touch.)

Similarly the sequence where — spoiler alert — Lara discovers her dad (West) is still alive takes the movie out of the action rut briefly, thank god, and provides the opportunity for a bit of human drama. But that's underpowered, too. And at the end the filmmakers commit this terrible sin of killing the father off after all, and as part of that crappy tomb raider sequence. (Lara to her dad: "I haven't come all this way to see you die."... Unfortunately, you have, dear.)

After Angelina Jolie, the less statuesque and less spectacularly pneumatic Alicia Vikander is a good choice. Her smaller physical stature and her carefully established underdog credentials elicit considerable audience sympathy. They also serve to tone down the inherent sexism of the character. 

And a bow and arrow instead of two hand guns is another vast improvement. Though I believe both these innovations were already inherent in the recent video game reboot. (The guns turn up at the end, anyway, though.) 

The new Tomb Raider is a mixed bag, but not a complete farrago. Alicia Vikander is so good that I actually hope there'll be some sequels. But they still have the problem that no one seems to know what the hell a successful Lara Croft movie should be about.

(Image credits: A surprisingly modest selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

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