Tomb Raider Is the Sort of Pulpy Action Fun That We Undervalue

By
Alicia Vikander. Photo: Warner Bros.

Strange days. Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander as the young Lara Croft, opened to meh or worse reviews because we don’t need another stinkin’ remake of a lousy old movie based on an ancient video game and how lazy can studios be, etc., etc. What I saw — later than most critics, at an IMAX screening — was a tight, fast, well-made B picture that delivered exactly what it promised. I liked it much.

I’ll admit that the screening started off on a feel-good promotional note: Attendees were invited to dress up as Lara Croft and pose in front of the movie’s poster. A bunch of women did, affecting the requisite tough stances. Then an announcer yammered something about the lighting being wrong and called for Alicia Vikander to help out — and so, in bounded Vikander, who amid the YAAAAHHHHHHHs hugged each Lara Croft in turn and posed for a group photo. Then she made the same speech about how she’s always loved Lara Croft that I’d already heard on talk shows, but not from ten feet away, where it’s even more charming.

To the movie: Tomb Raider does everything right that last year’s The Mummy did so garishly, painfully wrong. It’s lickety-split, straight-ahead, with no dumb subplots. It opens on a note of loss. The vastly wealthy Richard Croft (Dominic West) tells his journal (and us) that he must take leave of his beloved daughter — his “Sprout” — to keep a nefarious agency from finding and weaponizing a demonic queen entombed in a mountain on an island off the coast of Japan.

That sounds complicated but plays very simply, and then it’s seven years later and Vikander’s Lara is getting herself smashed in a boxing-cum-wrestling ring by a larger opponent. Lara drags herself off the canvas and we learn that she hasn’t paid her club dues — she’s poor, even though she could collect her father’s fortune but won’t because it would mean she’d have to acknowledge he’s dead instead of missing-and-presumed. For some reason — maybe it’s a consequence of staring for so long at the smooth, dead-eyed faces of Don, Eric, Ivanka, and Jared — I found her ridiculous insistence on living by her wits and on her merits as worthy of a standing ovation.

But she is — there’s no escaping it — a rich girl and a Croft, and the Crofts have a lot of holdings and a neglected but vast manor on the outskirts of London. Her aunt Kristin Scott Thomas bails Lara out of jail after a long and well-edited bike chase I won’t bother to detail and convinces her to sign the damn papers already. But before Lara does, she’s presented with a photo of her and her dad, plus a skeleton key and a puzzle — she and her dad loved puzzles — which sends her to her father’s empty crypt, which sends her to his secret cluttered HQ for international derring-do, which sends her to Hong Kong, which sends her into perilous seas and to that Japanese island where who-knows-what awaits.

Yes, Tomb Raider is the sort of film in which a lot of people run after Lara shouting, “Get her!” One might liken it to a big-screen video game. Which it proudly is. The actual video game was very good and so is the action in this movie. Let me give you an example: Lara, whose hands are bound, gets away from her captors, who shoot at her, at which points she falls off a cliff into rushing water and hurtles towards a waterfall — at which point she manages to get her roped hands around a rusted, rotting little plane perched at the fall’s brink and, after much effort, somersaults onto a wing — which breaks off in stages, forcing her to leap into the cockpit, which promptly begins to slide into the falls (“Really?” she says) as she desperately tries to saw her hands free — at which point she whizzes through the air and lands with a thud in front of the camera, sitting up to discover a long piece of metal just west of her navel and having to slooowwwly pull it out — at which point a bad guy puts a gun to her head and she’s instantly embroiled in a tussle that ends on a painful, grueling note — at which points she notices a haggard figure watching her through the trees and gives chase — at which point …

The above is meant to suggest how swiftly the cliffhangers come and how wittily they’re connected, with pauses for Lara to knock someone out or get knocked out herself. Vikander has spoken of training hard for the role and most of that I’d bet was doing pull-ups, swinging along parallel bars, and scaling rock walls. Kickboxing, too, probably. Nowadays you can’t tell if a star’s head is on a stuntperson’s body, so what she really did and didn’t do I can’t say, but she looks like she’s doing a lot and splendidly, with verve and style. Emotionally, she’s all there — achingly vulnerable in the scene that follows the sequence I’ve described and fierce for the climax to come. She doesn’t have Angelina Jolie’s droll, to-the-manor-born insouciance, but Jolie was playing the later, more bureaucratized Lara Croft. This one hasn’t constructed her persona or built her team.

The supporting cast is fine. Dominic West pours on the pathos, which is just what’s needed in this sort of film. As the captain of the boat that Lara hires, Daniel Wu goes too quickly from tottering drunk to quick-witted decisive man of action, but he’s an agreeable fellow and I’d like to see more of him. As the villain, Walton Goggins has grown an asymmetrical beard and twisted his face in a way that makes him instantly dislikable. (I define “instantly” the way the Car Guys once did on NPR, as the time between a light turning green and the Boston driver behind you honking.)

The director is a Norwegian with the evocative name Roar Uthaug. I’ve only seen one other film of his, on Netflix, a relatively small-scale disaster movie called The Wave that I remember thinking was excellently made despite a lot of dumb old disaster tropes. The same thing applies here. The fights and chases are well designed. You can always tell where everything is in relation to everything else and who’s hitting or shooting whom — which isn’t a given, surprisingly, when fast cutting and loudness can cover a lot of infelicities. Here, the editing team of Stuart Baird, Tom Harrison-Read, and Michael Tronick make every shot land. The tomb being raided is scary, the payoff a happy surprise.

I’m probably overpraising Tomb Raider — it’s not that big a deal. But it’s not a small deal. Some of the reviews make me wonder if critics understand that there are gradations in junk culture, and that turning up one’s nose at something as deft and unpretentious as Tomb Raider suggests a reverse prejudice. I don’t want so many sequels/prequels/
video-game/comic-book/CGI-laden movies either, but there’s a lot of space for good work between the high of Black Panther and the abyss of The Mummy.

Tomb Raider Is a Sort of Pulpy Action Fun That We Undervalue