Tomb Raider Movie Review: Dead on Arrival

There's a tomb and some raiding, but weak direction and scripting doom this one to an early grave.
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Alicia Vikander is an inspired choice to play legendary adventurer Lara Croft. She’s a close physical match to the current youthful videogame incarnation of the character, especially after getting in peak shape for the role. She brings Oscar-winning acting chops to the role, ensuring that the character carries dramatic weight. Her attempt at an English accent is mostly laughable, alternating between posh, street, and outright American, but it’s forgivable and almost endearing. Unfortunately, the film’s inspiration begins and ends with the casting of Vikander.

Unlike the prior two movies starring fellow Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as an already formidable adventurer, this outing serves as Lara’s origin story, closely aligning itself with Lara’s 2013 videogame reboot, also titled simply Tomb Raider. This Lara is a scrappy bike-delivery person who has turned her back on her massive inheritance rather than come to terms with the idea that her long-missing father is dead. She’s never been on adventure, or seemingly anywhere outside of London, but she has found time to get absolutely shredded at the local kickboxing gym, even if she’s not very good at winning.

When she finally decides to legally declare her father dead and goes to the Croft corporate offices to sign the appropriate documentation, she’s given a final message from dad that leads her to his secret study under the family mausoleum. There she finds a video from her father asking her for just one thing: destroy all documents associated with an ancient deity he was investigating. This being the movies, of course she can’t do that one simple job, so instead she takes all of the documents to Hong Kong in the hopes of tracking her father’s final trail. Once there, she meets up with a sketchy ship captain named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who foolishly agrees to take her to the cursed island rumored to house the deity’s tomb. Suffice it to say, things don’t go so well on the island, especially when they meet evil Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and his goons, who have been searching for the same tomb for seven years.

The film as directed by Roar Uthaug (The Wave) takes far too long getting to the island, and its script by fellow relative newcomers including Geneva Roberston-Dworet (who also worryingly has a credit on Captain Marvel) and Alastair Siddons (who?) clumsily pounds us over the head to establish Lara’s inexperience and scrappiness via the film’s by-the-numbers opening boxing match and a ridiculous illegal bicycle race through the streets of London. The script left me with some questions, most of which I’ve already forgotten, but I still wonder why Lara went to Hong Kong to take a boat to the mysterious island that was clearly identified as being located off the coast of Japan, aside from currying favor with the Chinese box office. Even if the island was somehow closer to China than Japan, wouldn’t it make far more sense to leave from Taiwan or Shanghai? No, because then we wouldn’t have yet another preposterous establishing action scene for Lara to prove her resourcefulness as she chases baddies across the dense maze of small boats famously floating in Hong Kong.

Although the film is a creaky mess setting up Lara and transporting her to the island, it manages to be fairly entertaining during the raiding of its expansive and suitably terrifying tomb. The cinematography fails to rise above the level of a TV movie until tomb time, but once there, it gets plenty of mileage out of strong flashlights in inky black spaces. The tomb also has some interesting puzzles and death traps for Lara to figure out, the closest the film gets to feeling like its videogame origin.

Daniel Wu is the best part of the supporting cast, serving as Lara’s able sidekick as they battle the island enemies. After two decades as a star in Hong Kong, it’s great to see the American-born Wu finally getting some domestic opportunities in the wake of his TV series Into the Badlands. Walton Goggins tries to bring the menace as the lead opponent, but I just couldn’t take him seriously after his buffoonish recent turn in HBO’s Vice Principals. Dominic West also pops up in flashbacks as Lara’s missing father, hamming up his adoration of Lara so much that he’s more caricature than character. Kristin Scott Thomas briefly appears as an intriguing setup character for a future adventure we’re not likely to ever see come to fruition after this film tanks.

Look, I’m a fan of Vikander and the Tomb Raider franchise, and I really wanted to be a fan of this movie. I’ve played most of the videogames since the original 1996 debut, investing dozens of hours completing both of the most recent reboot games. I just wish the film producers cared enough to get more than just a great lead actress for the project. It’s telling that the Jolie films were produced by Paramount, but this one shares joint Warner Brothers and MGM logos, along with the game’s current rights holder, Square Enix. The Tomb Raider concept is rife for the inventiveness of truly gifted filmmakers; unfortunately those filmmakers are nowhere to be seen for uninspired raid. Thankfully, gamers don’t have long to wait for a proper adventure, as Lara will return in her next videogame outing this fall.

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