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Ordeals and Croft – ‘Tomb Raider’

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There has never been a genuinely good movie based on a video game. Not a particularly spicy take, but an accurate one. That’s not to say there has never been an enjoyable video game; tastes are tastes and there are plenty of ways to have a little fun.

Still, filmmakers have long struggled to translate the stories of video games – driven as they are by the agency and sense of utility of the player – into traditional big-screen narratives.

With the latest entry into the genre – a remake of “Tomb Raider” – that struggle continues, though it comes as close to success as any of the films that preceded it. Yes, there are plenty of ways in which it doesn’t work, but there are more ways in which it does than any video game-based movie we’ve seen.

Alicia Vikander (“Tulip Fever”) stars, assuming the mantle of titular tomb raider Lara Croft from Angelina Jolie, whose 2001 and 2003 efforts had meh performances at the box office and worse with the critics.

Croft is a young woman struggling with the long-ago disappearance of her father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, “The Square”). It has been seven years – her guardian Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas, “Darkest Hour”) is pushing for her to sign the papers that would allow the assets of her father’s company to officially move into Lara’s name.

But in the course of doing so, a mystery is revealed – one that Lara can’t help but want to solve. Her efforts lead her to discover that her father was much more than the business tycoon she believed him to be; Lara finds his research into a sinister-sounding international organization … one that she believes may be connected to his disappearance.

And so she jets across the world in an effort to track down the man who agreed to transport her father to a mysterious location … and who happened to be the last person with whom her father communicated. Instead, she finds the man’s son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, “Geostorm”), a drunken boat captain who might be willing to take her where she needs to go.

But of course it’s not that easy.

Lara soon finds herself at odds with a group of mercenaries led by the enigmatic Mattias (Walton Goggins, TV’s “Vice Principals”), a man whose employers seek to find a legendary tomb which might contain a weapon of unimaginable power. A man who is willing to do anything necessary to see the job through.

And that’s … pretty much it.

Look, here’s what you need to know about “Tomb Raider” – there are like four different scenes where Alicia Vikander dangles precariously above massive drops. Usually by one arm, though not always. Seriously – I get the necessity of creating that sense of danger, but maybe mix it up a little?

Excessive dangling aside, “Tomb Raider” is actually a decently-made movie. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug has a good eye for action sequences, creating some aesthetically interesting set pieces. There’s a thinness to the narrative, but that’s not really a surprise – video game adaptations don’t really lend themselves to sophisticated storytelling. The plot is pretty paint-by-numbers, but solid pacing helps.

The film definitely benefits from a cast that is probably a little too talented to be making this kind of movie. Vikander is one of the best young actresses around these days; the fact that she’s playing the lead in a CGI blockbuster is a little weird. Her work is quite good here – she gives us occasional flashes of wry humor that make you wish for more – but the constraints of the film around her don’t give her a ton of room. She makes herself at home in the space, though; there’s a streak of badass in her whose prominence I honestly wasn’t anticipating.

There’s some slumming among the supporting cast as well, but it’s the best kind of slumming – talented actors who actually recognize how much fun big blockbuster movies are supposed to be. Thomas is lovely in her scenes. West is dashingly British in all the right ways. They both seem to be having a good time, which elevates the proceedings considerably. Even Sir Derek Jacobi shows up for a few minutes.

And then there’s Walton Goggins, who for my money is one of the most underrated character actors currently working in Hollywood. He’s such a great bad guy, able to exude menace and charm at the same time. There’s an intensity there that works wonderfully for him in this role; it could have been generic, but he makes it memorable through basically sheer force of will.

Again – “Tomb Raider” isn’t a great movie. But it’s not a bad movie either. It is solidly, comfortably average, the sort of action movie that will probably have a decent box office run and be largely forgotten by the time the summer rolls around.

Which makes it quite probably the best video game movie ever made.

[3.5 out of 5]

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