The most interesting notion that the new “Tomb Raider” reboot has to offer apparently comes from the 2013 reimagining of the original ’90s video game: It gives us a Lara Croft who’s capable but not superhuman, making her more like Bruce Willis’ legendary John McClane (in the first few “Die Hard” movies, anyway) than the usual impenetrable war machines who so often anchor action flicks and video games.
This Lara (played by Alicia Vikander) is introduced to us in the film through two grueling physical challenges — which she loses. She responds with genuine terror and disgust when she is forced to kill in self-defense. And terrible things happen simply because she refuses to follow very explicit video-recorded instructions from her father Richard (Dominic West), who’s been long-missing and presumed dead.
Such a uniquely interesting character deserves more than a run-of-the-mill action franchise, but “Tomb Raider” is exactly that, a formulaic adventure so predictable and pre-ordained that it could have been written on one of the many maps the characters use. Nearly 40 years after “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and we’re still getting pits and spikes, spiders and snakes.
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(There’s one provocative reading that the film couldn’t be less interested in, which has to do with the way that these archaeology sagas all seem to stem from white people causing trouble by poking around in places they’ve been told to leave alone. If only Shuri from “Black Panther” could pop up to taunt these explorers with a tart “Colonizer.”)
When we meet Lara, she’s getting by on her wits and on her skills as a London bike courier, because to sign the papers that grant her an inheritance would be to acknowledge that Richard really isn’t coming home like he promised. She’s close to putting her name on the dotted line when a family factotum gives her a puzzle-box her father bequeathed her; inside is a clue and a key that unlocks a private workshop that shows that Richard was obsessed with finding a hidden island off the coast of Japan that houses the remains of a legendary goddess of death. Via camcorder, he begs Lara to destroy his research, but she instead uses it to track him down herself.
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In Hong Kong, Lara finds Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, “Into the Badlands”), a ship captain whose father took her father to the island, and she pays him to follow their path. They are buffeted about in stormy seas (the first in a series of over-the-top sequences) and wash ashore, only to find that the nefarious Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) has been there for seven years, leading an expedition to find the tomb himself. And now that Lara has delivered her father’s notes, it seems like they may open it, no matter how dangerous that might be to humanity.
Vikander is empathetic as a regular person who finds herself thrust into extraordinary circumstances, but once she gets on the island and escapes from the bad guys, Lara is basically the video-game character she’s always been, hopping in and out of scrapes. And while the Oscar-winner gets put through her paces, vets like Goggins and West (and Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi) pop in for just enough time (and exert just enough energy) to collect a paycheck.
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Director Roar Uthaug (“The Wave”) piles on the flashy CG set pieces, from a rickety plane dangling over the top of a waterfall to the various tricks and traps of the tomb, but they feel more like elements for a snazzy trailer than scenes that actually create suspense or adrenaline. A zippy bike-chase through London early-on generates some promise for the film, but by the time we’re deep in the jungle, it’s very much the same-old, same-old.
Since the genre of video games-turned-into-feature films has inflicted some real doozies on audiences, “Tomb Raider” towers above most of its peers by being merely OK. By any other measure, this is a saga of fits and starts, and we can only hope for smoother sailing if the film inspires the sequels it clearly hopes to engender.