Ah, rich superheroines. They’re just like us. Well, not even a little, but the new “Tomb Raider” movie makes a surprisingly good case for it. Part of that is due to Alicia Vikander’s performance as Lara Croft, as she manages to imbue her version with strength, charm and vulnerability without overselling. Angelina Jolie could only embody her as the unstoppable goddess, but Alicia Vikander might be the actress to take Lara through all her incarnations.
Lara is 21 here and working as a bike courier. It’s rather annoying until we realize she actually has a pretty good reason. Her father vanished seven years ago, and to actually use the money she inherited from him would mean admitting he’s really gone, and she can’t bring herself to do that. But then she finds a posthumous message from her father about the last place he traveled to before his disappearance, a mysterious island that supposedly contained the tomb of a bloodthirsty ancient Japanese empress. Of course, rather than destroy his research as he requested, she decides to go there herself.
So the adventure begins, with Vikander making Croft seem like a person in a way that does justice to audiences rather than insulting them. She clearly has the makings of the legend she will someday become, and it’s genuinely fun to watch her take her first steps on that path. Lara is separated from the enormous financial wealth and the experience that would normally allow her to conquer the many threats that will soon become her routine. For now? She’s good, but not great, with mostly her strength, intelligence and stubbornness to rely on.
Getting to the island is an ordeal in itself, and once she arrives, she finds many of the usual action movie trademarks. There’s a greedy boss (Walton Goggins, single-handedly elevating what could’ve been another bland villain), who is also the stooge for an evil corporation that’s part of a bigger conspiracy, plenty of parental issues, and workers who are forced to do the bidding of irredeemable bad guys. Oh, and there’s the tomb of course, with a whole lot of traps, puzzles and a question of just how much, if any, of the legend is true.
It’s just so damn fun to watch this movie as it moves along at an increasingly brisk pace, with Lara getting the kind of grittier action that generally manages to come across as frighteningly suspenseful, even realistic in the beginning. “Tomb Raider” wisely stops trying to make her relatable as the movie progresses, as there’s just no way to make solving a puzzle in an ancient tomb relatable. Director Roar Uthaug is making his American debut, and he does an excellent job of making it look like Lara is actually in danger, with our heroine accruing some damage (you know, just the right amount) and making some of the violence, at least in the beginning, look like it has a real effect on her.
Of course, her relationship with her father plays a large role, while her mother isn’t even shown, as was the case in the 2001 film. But in this entry, it’s far less annoying, mostly because Lara’s character doesn’t revolve around her paternal figure or any other man in her life. The emphasis is on her growth, not on her daddy issues or love interest. Nor will it be really remarkable if this movie actually breaks the video game curse, which it will most likely do. Even Angelina Jolie’s first mediocre run as Croft got a sequel. Lara Croft is basically the Batman of video game movies; it really seems hard to go wrong with her.
If Lara eventually does become a cartoon, it’s only in the last five minutes, when she has access to her trademarks: money, experience and that braid. When the inevitable sequel hits, here’s hoping Vikander will have as much to work with so she can still bring what made her so fun to watch here.