The summer of laughably protracted movie titles continues with "Lara Croft: Tomb RaiderThe Cradle of Life," a superior sequel to 2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
" in that it is a divertingly tolerable experience, rather than a numbingly dull one. One possible reason for the notable improvements in pacing is the change in director, from the hack-style Simon West (1999's "The General's Daughter
") to the more stylish Jan de Bont (1994's "Speed"). If there is one thing de Bont has proven in the past, it is his adeptness in setting up and pulling off action sequences. However, while there are more moments with flair than in the original fiasco, it remains a one-dimensional and suspiciously lifeless affair.
Based on the video game character, Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) is a wealthy Brit who raids tombs, and saves humanity in her spare time. This time, Lara's mission is to retrieve Pandora's Box, which lies dormant in a secret place and has the power to destroy mankind. Standing in her way is Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), who has stolen a magical ball with the power to lead anyone in its possession to the sought-after box. With time running out, Lara enlists the aid of ex-boyfriend and convict Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), who still may hold feelings for her.
"Lara Croft: Tomb RaiderThe Cradle of Life" holds scenes of vivid imagination and effectiveness, but for every one that inspires or stimulates or even frightens, there are two more that lack narrative cohesion, professionalism, and energy. The key to the franchise's failure, thus far, is its confusion in how to handle the lead heroine of Lara Croft. As with Charlie's Angels
Dylan, Natalie, and AlexLara is strong-willed, tough-as-nails, and sexy. Unlike the crime-fighting threesome, however, screenwriter Dean Georgaris gives Lara no true character shades, and Angelina Jolie (2002's "Life or Something Like It
") keeps her role at arm's length, unable to endear herself to audiences. When an action film (or any genre, for that matter) can't even get the viewer to care about its protagonist, then it has more than likely failed. Nothing much is learned about Lara in the process of the film's admittedly brisk-seeming two-hour running time; she is little more than an unfocused cipher.
Fortunately, much of what surrounds the spoil-sport Lara works in spite of itself. The plot is preposterous and I wouldn't even wager a guess at what, exactly, it is about outside of the basic premise, but there are worthwhile bits. An underwater opener involving a buried city and a hungry shark is thrilling, as is a creative and unexpectedly spooky climax set within a dark, creature-filled forest. Likewise, some of the stunts are awesome to watch, all the more so because the camera shots linger long enough on the action to understand they have been done with a minimum of visual effects. Lara and Terry's motorcycle race, their death-defying jump off a building wearing parasailing gear, and Lara's bamboo stick gymnastics are silly, yet fun in an eager-to-please way that the first picture didn't even attempt. At the same time, the stuntpersons too often feel obvious, and are not as seamless with the real actors as is the norm for big-budget filmmaking.
Angelina Jolie has turned in electric performances of emotional weight and depth, and she will undoubtedly have more such roles, but her Lara Croft is not one of them. Jolie is athletic and beautiful, but she sorely lacks heart. Ultimately, this is the case with the entirety of "Lara Croft: Tomb RaiderThe Cradle of Life," a motion picture that, like its precursor, is a joyless, emotion-free slog that never seems to take off before the end credits have rolled. Giving viewers a reason for why they should care about, or even watch, Ms. Croft is awfully difficult when the filmmakers themselves obviously have no idea who she is. They don't even seem to care.