The meaty thwap of fist against flesh we hear as Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft grimly struggles to hold her own in a kickboxing match lets us know early on that Tomb Raider exists not in some elaborate CGI fantasia where superpowered warriors transcend gravity and mortality.
This is an all-too-real world where bodies feel pain and heroes can be physically defeated. The most imposing aspect of the muscular yet slim Lara is her determined stare, and all that’s superhuman about her is a stubborn refusal to die after she impetuously thrusts herself into one life-imperiling situation after another.
But though Lara may be posing as just some scrappy London bike courier, she’s actually (duh) the potential heiress to the massive Croft fortune. All she needs (and refuses) to do to cash in is sign a few papers acknowledging the death of her father (Dominic West), who disappeared mysteriously (is there any other way to disappear?) seven years earlier.
But before she assents, Lara discovers the truth: Lord Croft, who had a secret life as an adventurer in the realm of supernatural antiquities, sailed to the island of Yamatai to prevent the remains of the witch queen Himiko from falling into the hands of a shadowy international organization known as Trinity.
Lara immediately pawns her signature jade necklace and hies off to Hong Kong with a stack of cash and Lord Croft’s journals, where she meets Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), the son of the ship’s captain her father had hired to help him on his quest. Searching for their fathers, Lara and Lu are shipwrecked on Yamatai, where they must outwit the vicious Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and the agents of Trinity to prevent Himiko’s powers from being unleashed upon humanity.
Along the way, Vikander strikes just the right mix of streetwise survival instinct and haughty aristocratic entitlement, downing baddies handily with bow and arrow. (No two-fisted pistol blasting for her. Yet.) She’ll make you forget the winking, self-objectified glamour of Angelina Jolie’s Lara even if you somehow enjoyed the earlier Tomb Raider adaptations. In fact, her commitment to humanizing Lara is so magnetic it’s tempting to say she deserves a better movie.
Really though, she just deserves a more relaxed one; Tomb Raider is far too hung up on rising above its video game pedigree, too leery of its cornball mythology. Director Roar Uthaug energetically if unimaginatively choreographs action sequences that have more in common with an old-school Bond flick than a modern superhero outing: a playful bike race through the streets of London, a chase by foot along the Hong Kong docks, an escape from a rusted-out airplane suspended above a waterfall. But his enthusiasm wanes when it’s time for Lara to solve puzzles and outwit booby traps—to, you know, tomb-raid.
Uthaug can’t quite reconcile the b-movie premise with his grimly realist approach—at times, it’s like watching Werner Herzog’s Indiana Jones and the Pitiless Cruelty of Nature. And Goggins underplays Vogel as a beleaguered project manager trying to get his crew back on schedule, flashing little of the psychotic charisma that allowed his Boyd Crowder to so memorably split the difference between villain and antihero on Justified.
Like any potential franchise-starter, Tomb Raider often seems to exist primarily to promote its sequel. No one would begrudge Vikander a long, profitable future of murdering smug men who underestimate her, and the final sequence here suggests that the sequel might be more fun. Then again, that’s what trailers are supposed to do.
Director: Roar Uthaug
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins
Theater: Area theaters, now showing