THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Lara Croft is popular with male computer game addicts for a reason. The sexy brunette kicks ass wearing tight shorts and even tighter shirts that show off her almost anatomically impossible breasts. The fact that she isn't real doesn't seem to matter; guys who play Eidos Entertainment's "Tomb Raider" games fantasize about her in a big way. (Some women love her, too, because she is the embodiment of "girl power.") Lara Croft has become so popular that even those of us who have never played the computer game know who she is. When it was announced that the pixilated heroine would come to the big screen, lots of actresses (including Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ashley Judd) were mentioned to play this part. But there was only one actress who could do it justice: Angelina Jolie, who - with her pouty lips and overtly sexual aura - is something of a special effect herself. Not only that, but she can act, too. The casting of Jolie is at least 50% of the reason why Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is a rousing success.

Angelina Jolie brings a video game to life in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
In case you don't know her backstory, Lara Croft is a photographer/archaeologist who comes from a privileged family. She travels the world in search of various lost treasures and hidden crypts. Lara is also well-schooled in the art of self-defense. In the movie, we learn that her father, Lord Croft (Jon Voight, who is Jolie's real-life father), disappeared over fifteen years ago. No one knows what happened to him. One night, Lara discovers in her father's secret room a ticking clock. The inside of the clock holds a strange treasure that appears to be some sort of key. She is advised to show the key to a lawyer named Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) who specializes in such arcane matters. It turns out that the key unlocks the power of the Triangle of Time, a device that allows the user to manipulate time. The triangle's two pieces have been hidden, as was the key. What Lara doesn't know is that Powell works for a group called the Illuminati. They plan to get all three pieces together and take control of time for evil purposes.

Lara becomes a pawn in their game. The key is stolen from her, so she needs to find the Triangle pieces before Powell and his crew find them. Locating the pieces means entering mysterious tombs, all of which are booby-trapped with things such as armed statues that come to life. Once the two halves are found, Powell plays a head game with Lara, reminding her that the Triangle of Time can reunite her with her father once and for all. She doesn't know whether to stop him or cooperate.

For me, this was one of the best factors about Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. A lot of summer action movies are concerned only with cramming as many special effects into their running time as possible (The Mummy Returns is a prime example). This one, on the other hand, has room for story. More than that, it has room for complexity. Powell finds Lara's weakness and exploits it for his own benefit. I like knowing that, as tough as she is, Lara is also a little girl who misses her father. It's a great touch that adds some weight to the action scenes.

Ah, yes - the action scenes. What about those? There is not a very good track record for movies based on video games. This one is different. Watching Tomb Raider feels like playing a great video game. It has that same excitement, that same rush. Best of all, the action scenes are not cliched; this movie has some of the most original set pieces of any movie so far this year. My favorite finds Lara suspended on bungee cables as she fights baddies who have repelled through the skylight in her mansion. She bounces effortlessly from floor to ceiling and runs sideways across the walls as she takes the intruders out. Later, she hops a giant, rotating diagram of the solar system. This is a process that necessitates a lot of ducking, climbing, and jumping in order to avoid crashing into one of the spinning planets. I loved how different the action scenes were. Director Simon West (The General's Daughter) is intent on making this movie stand apart from other video game adaptations. He gives the audience real roller coaster-style thrills.

As exciting as Tomb Raider is, the thing you keep coming back to is Angelina Jolie. She looks the part, to be sure, but she is also an accomplished actress who builds a 3-dimensional character in the middle of the mayhem. The video game Lara Croft is the epitome of cool, all tight leather and attitude. Jolie is credible in that role, but also brings a vulnerability to the character that elevates the film as a whole. After winning an Oscar for the intense drama Girl, Interrupted, some may wonder why she'd choose to make a big Hollywood action movie. Here's the answer: she knows that Lara Croft is a great part. The actress approaches the character seriously and turns it into something special.

The danger of summer movies is that they can be overhyped. It's not enough to have the biggest explosions or the most special effects. You need a reason to care. You need a solid human element to keep the action grounded in meaning. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider does this kind of thing well. Quite simply, I had a blast watching it.

( out of four)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is rated PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat