- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Expect a barrage of “better than the original” quotes booming from print ads for the new “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.”

The film’s 2001 precursor, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” earned $47.7 million in its opening week, proving a video game can make the commercial leap to boffo box-office takes. Unfortunately, too many viewers walked away after admiring Angelina Jolie’s pumped-up physique and little else.

Credit the powers behind this would-be franchise for luring Jan De Bont (“Speed”) to helm the follow-up. The director isn’t a top-tier talent, but he knows how to frame action sequences, and, more important, he makes the interludes between mayhem tolerable.

That doesn’t mean “The Cradle of Life” elevates the material to the ranks of “Indiana Jones” adventure films. “Cradle’s” story still smacks of pulp silliness, and none of the set pieces will linger very long in your synapses.

“The Cradle of Life” opens with a bikini-clad Croft (Miss Jolie) jet-surfing along a watery expanse. It’s the only gratuitous moment in the film, and it’s brief. Unlike those flighty “Charlie’s Angels,” Croft doesn’t feel compelled to show skin while performing feats of derring-do.

How novel.

Croft and her fellow researchers have just struck upon the Luna Temple, a forgotten undersea realm teaming with treasure. But a band of evil pillagers arrive at the same time, killing Croft’s crew and leaving her for dead.

Already, her character’s lack of invincibility is a welcome change from the original.

The villain responsible for the attack, Dr. Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds), plans to use a glowing orb swiped from the tomb to find the Cradle of Life, an African tomb that supposedly houses an ancient plague. The doctor hopes to sell the plague to the highest bidder, a weapon of mass destruction like no other.

Croft asks for the prison release of her old beau Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler, soon to be film’s “Phantom of the Opera”) to track down the thugs who are aiding Dr. Reiss.

Terry and Croft fight — and bicker — side by side to find Dr. Reiss, but she is never sure where his loyalties ultimately lie.

Sure, the preceding paragraphs are hooey. But the story lets Croft and Co. galavant from Greece to England and, finally, to the jungles of Africa before scores can be settled and humanity saved.

Croft, and the versatile Miss Jolie, remain the series’ main selling points.

The actress performs the bulk of her own stunts, riding sidesaddle in one throwaway moment and dissuading a shark with a well-placed blow to its snout. The latter is but one improbable moment, but Miss Jolie carries forth with such vigor that more moldable audiences will swallow it whole.

She also knows her way around a weapon, to put it mildly, thwarting baddies with guns, her fists and a series of blunt-faced weapons.

More important, Croft has a soft spot for her old flame, a flickering subplot that gives the film its heart.

This is no grand romance, mind you, but it’s far richer than at first blush. Credit Mr. Butler’s cagey charisma and a better-than-mediocre script by Dean Georgaris.

Croft may still be too calculating to gain our affections — it’s easy to lose patience with a heroine who seems so impenetrable, so unmoved by the scope of her mission.

What never grows tired are the film’s stunning locales, particularly an opening sequence on Santorini in Greece and the later stages set throughout Kenya.

Previous game-inspired films, from 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” to 1994’s “Double Dragon” stirred little interest, and 1995’s “Mortal Kombat” didn’t draw many fans outside the joystick faithful.

For that reason, the first “Lara Croft” film may have been a lark, a chance to grab eyeballs normally fixated on dancing pixels.

It’s clear “The Cradle of Life” is a bid for something more, although it may take a third chapter to fully realize that potential and forever gain it independence from its video-game roots.

** 1/2

TITLE: “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”

RATING: PG-13 (Bone-crushing action sequences, romantic situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Jan De Bont. Screenplay by Dean Georgaris, story by Steven E. De Souza and James V. Hart. Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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