Tomb Raider is an old-fashioned film, and not just because a large chunk of it takes place in a thousand year-old crypt: there’s next to nothing going on in this largely unambitious action-adventure that you couldn’t see in a movie twenty (forty?) years ago. Well, maybe one thing: at a time when the idea that simply taking another culture’s relics is a little dubious, the new Tomb Raider goes out of its way to present grave-robbing in a socially acceptable light. This time around the ones actually robbing the tomb are the bad guys, the tomb is Japanese (relatively safe to pillage culturally speaking) and it's also pretty much a death trap the Japanese didn’t want anywhere near their country anyway.
So with that safely taken care of, we’re free to enjoy the tomb-raiding clichés – of which there are many, and this gleefully includes all of them – under the steady leadership of Alicia Vikander, who as Lara Croft delivers a performance that gives just the right amount of emotional heft and intensity to all the running, jumping, crawling, diving, more jumping, arrow-shooting, bike racing, kick-boxing, swimming, and falling out of the sky. Not only is Croft not a superhero, she’s not an experienced adventurer: this is her origin story, and it’s refreshing to see her be exasperated or freaked out by the kind of rough and tumble that a more experienced heroine (or less engaged actor) would take in her stride.
Taking its lead from the successful 2013 reboot of the game, here Croft is 21, a London bike courier, and actively avoiding taking on the mantle (and vast wealth) left to her by her father, Lord Croft (Dominic West). He vanished seven years ago on a vague and mysterious quest to prevent the bad guys – an organisation named Trinity – from finding something evil, and when Croft decides to finally sign the papers that’ll officially mark her father as dead she stumbles upon a clue that inspires her to go looking for him one final time.
This isn’t particularly jet-setting, with only a brief stop-over in Hong Kong for a thrilling but superfluous foot chase scene before she’s off with drunken sailor Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to find the mysterious island where both her father and his vanished. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal finding the island is both surprisingly easy and extremely hazardous, and that once there the somewhat unhinged Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) is running the kind of archaeological dig where sloppy workers get shot.
For a story that basically runs on rails there are enough twists here to keep things moderately fresh, but who’s watching a Tomb Raider movie for the story? Norwegian director Roar Uthaug strings together an entertainingly varied range of action sequences to keep the excitement levels up before they get into the tomb (even if, as is common these days, the quality of the CGI is variable).
Once there he manages to make the fairly clichéd and uninspired run of death traps seem more like a camp reunion with some old favourites – spikes! pits! puzzles! deadly swinging things! – than something we’re meant to be taking fully seriously. It’s definitely not a high point of the film, but it’s a Tomb Raider movie; if there isn’t some old school breaking and entering then what’s the point?
The “jungle adventure” genre has been having a mini-revival of late (remember Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle?) as something of an antidote to the superhero genre’s increasingly bloated dramas. The best of the Indiana Jones movies remains a peak nobody’s going to be scaling in a hurry, and this isn’t anywhere close: the story is thin, the comedy (largely from a brief appearance from Nick Frost) is so-so and the supporting cast are largely forgettable. But as a rollicking old-fashioned adventure – the kind where going over a waterfall is a serious threat – this is a whole lot of fun. For once, a franchise film ending on a cliffhanger seems totally appropriate.