By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2003
Is anyone better suited to a role these days than Angelina Jolie to the computer game heroine Lara Croft? The preternaturally stunning actress, of the smashing figure, smoldering eyes and wasp-stung pout, is so otherworldly looking she might have been conceived by the most sexually frustrated gaming nerd in Silicon Valley. If she weren't human no one would believe such a creature really exists.
Jolie brings an arctic cool to her portrayal of the title character in "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life." In a summer of surprisingly self-serious comic book movies, she stands out as being particularly humorless. In a way, this is altogether appropriate to her virtual provenance, but it makes for a grim two-hour sit. "The Cradle of Life" goes through its motions with gotta-make-the-doughnuts deliberation ("Now we have a shootout. Now we do motorcycles. Next, some sky diving. Now, another shootout."); by the time the movie -- finally -- reaches its climactic scene in an acid pit somewhere in Africa, the audience isn't rapt with suspense as much as wracked with an enervated sense of predictability. Throughout, Jolie has been such an unsmiling presence that the film's final, unspeakably patronizing stab at humor looks like a flat-footed outtake from a "Charlie's Angels" audition.
"The Cradle of Life" opens with a Greek wedding that is interrupted by one big, fat earthquake. The disaster, it turns out, has shaken free some tantalizing treasures beneath the Aegean Sea. Enter Lara Croft, the aristocratic British adventuress whose posh accent belies a talent for kicking major posterior. In other words, the chick has chops, whether she's shooting a gun, fencing with fighting sticks or simply reducing her opponent to aspic with a withering glance. All these skills will be called on when she uncovers an ancient temple that holds a map to Pandora's box -- that legendary reliquary of pestilence, evil and sundry ill humors. (Or at least that's "the Sunday school version," Croft says in a breathtakingly strange bit of exegesis.) What's more, she must foil biological arms dealer Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), who figures to find the box and sell it on the open market, thus ensuring the world's destruction.
True to the first "Lara Croft" movie, "The Cradle of Life" takes its protagonist to myriad exciting locales, from Santorini and Buckinghamshire to Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Shanghai and Mount Kilimanjaro. Unlike the first movie, in a somewhat clever twist, her mission isn't to uncover an entombed treasure but to leave it be. Director Jan De Bont ("Speed," "Twister") choreographs the action with workmanlike skill, whether Croft is engaging in some sidesaddle target practice on her country estate, motocrossing along the Great Wall of China, pole-vaulting onto a hovering helicopter, using an inflatable flying suit to soar over Hong Kong Harbor or engaging in a shootout at what looks like the Clinique counter at Bloomie's. (In case the audience has dozed off, De Bont makes sure to introduce each stunt and new gadget with a thumpingly synthetic musical cue.)
It's all quite busy and bombastic, and there's nothing wrong -- in fact, there's a lot right -- with watching Jolie be her spectacular self in cool costumes and exotic locales. But the film's story and supporting characters -- including an untrustworthy love interest played by Gerard Butler -- aren't nearly enough to make "The Cradle of Life" more than another sequel cashing in on its pre-sold audience without providing anything by way of sparkle, wit or originality.
There's a phrase for franchises that have outlived their freshness: "jumping the shark," referring to an infamous "Happy Days" episode featuring Fonzie on water skis. In "The Cradle of Life," Lara Croft doesn't jump the shark -- she's much too refined for such blatant pandering -- but she does manage to take it for a ride.