On paper, it looked like Hollywood finally figured out how to make a live action film out of a video game. A hot Oscar-winning star (Angelina Jolie) and a name-brand (if not exactly acclaimed) action director (Simon West) would join forces to bring to the screen an interactive character (adventurous archeologist Lara Croft of the “Tomb Raider” series) with real potential for a life beyond player-controlled pixels. Despite the promise for being something more, the much-hyped “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” ends up playing exactly like a video game committed to film-and, no, that’s not a compliment.
Compliments are due Jolie, who ably fills out Lara’s figure in every way. Not only does she amazingly resemble her computerized counterpart and does a spot-on British accent, the role offers her an ideal vehicle to channel her off-screen “wild child” persona. While Lara may be born a “lady” of privilege, she doesn’t act the part. She’s less at home all gussied up in fancy dresses in her large country mansion than she is sporting form-fitting hotpants and tank tops while facing various dangers in booby-trapped (no pun intended) caves. Jolie clearly enjoys the character and shows great potential as a badass action star. But there’s nothing to the Lara character beyond Jolie and the ready-made personality she brings to the part. Even Lara’s key vulnerability — her desire to see her long-dead father again — is intrinsically tied to Jolie: Lord Croft is played by none other than Jon Voight, Jolie’s own father.
So the movie Lara is not much different from the empty digital shell that stars in the video game, and the film’s basic plot (by West, five other credited hands, and who knows how many others) reads like the outline for a game scenario. Lara has to prevent the evil Illuminati from rejoining the two halves of a legendary triangular idol that grants its possessor the ability to control time. Of course, the way to stop them is to collect the pieces herself first, so we get a series of glorified video game stages masquerading as action sequences. Lara’s mansion is invaded, and she has to dispose of the bad guys while tied to bungee cords. In the central sequence set in a cave in Cambodia, Lara must complete a number of tasks to collect the elusive first piece: turn a key, swing on a log to reach an urn, do away with all the warrior statues that come to life with the piercing of the urn, then battle the cave’s biggest statue, which must be defeated in order to advance to the next level-er, scene.
The mechanical feel of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” would have been easier to swallow if the filler between action scenes were the slightest bit tolerable. Whenever the mayhem dies down, the film commits a bigger crime than being boring — it tries to be funny. Not a single would-be comic touch elicits so much as a grin: not the one-note “eccentric” side characters like Lara’s stuffy butler (Christopher Barrie) or her nerdy gadget designer (Noah Taylor); not feeble culture-clash scenes such as Lara asking a monk if he knows where to find a phone. (The only time the audience laughed was when it was tricked into thinking they were going to be treated to a second gratuitous Lara shower scene late in the film; alas, the camera panned down from the shower head to reveal the face of her rival archeologist Alex, played by Daniel Craig.)
It’s interesting to note that the only thrills to be found in the PG-13 “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” are of the prurient kind: the previously alluded-to Lara shower scene, which bares a bit more skin than expected; and a slo-mo Lara running scene that’s downright “Baywatch”-worthy. Nearly $100 million was spent to make things blow up and fill the screen with loads of fancy special effects, but all anyone talked about at length when walking out of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” is something anyone can figure out after shelling out a couple of bucks on a video rental of “Gia” (which offers real dramatic substance in addition to ample nudity): Angelina Jolie is one hot babe.