LARA CROFT, TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE
The original films director Simon West was clearly thought to be behind the films lacklustre reception and was not asked to return here. To improve the franchise, the filmmakers in their bright thinking turned to, not as one might suspect, any of the top action directors in the business, or even any of the games original designers but ... wait for it, Jan de Bont, a director who, it is generally recognised, has made some of the worst films of the last few years.
The Dutch-born Jan de Bont began life as a cinematographer, working on the high profile likes of Die Hard (1988), Flatliners (1990), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992). He then made his directorial debut with Speed (1994), a film that proved a huge hit through its likable romantic-comic pairing but was entirely brainless when it came to writing and action, something that became all the more apparent with de Bonts universally loathed sequel Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997). de Bont next made the Michael Crichton-scripted Twister (1996), which was an okay film as long as one took it on the level of ever-expanding mass spectacle that it was intended. However, the stinker in Jan de Bonts crown was the remake of The Haunting (1999), a film so moronic in its conception and delivery and such an insult to the original masterwork that it has to top the list of worst all-time remakes. Its disastrous reception seemed to prove an end to Jan de Bonts career and he disappeared into hiding, becoming an in-house producer at DreamWorks SKG, until the Tomb Raider producers had the bright idea to re-employ him again. [In this authors opinion, Jan de Bont is one of the worst directors currently at work in Hollywood chief offender on the list is Joel Schumacher, with the remaining top spots equally shared by Renny Harlin, Stephen Sommers and Michael Bay].
The large problem with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is that it has been construed as a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie. Her performance, as in the first film, is all cat-like eyes, collagen-injected lips and lithe moves, but nothing you could call acting. Everything is a pose from her fake English accent to the erect nipples that have been deliberately costumed onto her diving suit. The rest of the film is clearly just the stunt people scaling ropes, diving off buildings and parasailing into action. The problem with vehicles for stars who can get paid $12 million (Angelina Jolies salary for the film) is that they become very remote from people telling you that they are not a major new talent, while usually any desire that the actor has to remove the less-than-perfect seeming aspects of their character on screen gets obeyed by lapdog script doctors.
That is what it feels has happened with Lara Croft here. Angelina Jolie got her $12 million desire to be a large-than-life heroine obeyed but to the extent that anything that is possibly human is removed from the character. There is not a single character conflict, not a single dramatic arc that she must travail anywhere throughout, not a single scene anywhere where one knows that Angelina is not going to come out on top. There does come the choice at the end between whether to leave or exploit the box, but this is a choice that comes far too late in the game and with the outcome not in the slightest doubt. Usually heroes have to earn their destiny but everything here comes handed to Lara, from her wealth, her inexhaustible supply of gadgetry, to the solution to every situation she faces. Indeed, for the self-styled tomb raider she is, there is not even a single scene in either film where she ever does any archaeological research.
The scriptwriters keep throwing in absurdly improbable gadgets and contrivances to save the day a submarine surfacing under Angelina while she is abandoned at sea; she and Gerard Butler revealing handy parasailing suits when trapped on top of a building; while everywhere she parachutes into she just happens to meet someone who regards her as a loyal old friend. For me, The Cradle of Life collapsed into total ludicrousness in the first few moments where we are underwater and a shark appears and lunges at the screen with a roar (!!!) and then a few minutes later Angelina Jolie cuts herself to draw it back then punches it on the nose (again with accompanied roaring sound effects) and grabs its tail to ride it to the surface.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life has a particularly hare-brained script. This comes from Steven E. de Souza, who wrote the first two Die Hard films, The Running Man (1987) and directed another videogame adaptation, Street Fighter (1994), and James V. Hart, who was responsible for Spielbergs Hook (1991) and Francis Ford Coppolas Bram Stokers Dracula (1992). Their contributions were polished by newcomer Dean Georgaris, although, Geogaris did redeem himself subsequently with the intelligently written Paycheck (2003), the politically charged remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and Tristan + Isolde (2006).
Dean Georgaris gets his history and myth somewhat mixed up to say the least. Santorini was destroyed in a volcanic eruption circa 1628 B.C., not an earthquake. Alexander the Great was not born until 356 B.C., more than a thousand years after the destruction of Santorini and the 2200 B.C. date the film gives as when he buried the Box. Moreover, while Alexander conquered much of Persia and the Mediterranean and ventured as far east as India, he never travelled any further south into Africa than Egypt, certainly not as far as Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania).
However, the films biggest blunders are when it comes to the myth of Pandoras Box. According to Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman and was given a box by Zeus and told never to open it. Eventually overcome by curiosity, Pandora did open the box only to unleash all the woes of humankind pain, sorrow, illness, greed etc. There is no reference in any of the myths to the box holding either the origin of all life or the ability to end it. These are basic facts that it took me all of about five minutes to check up online. When a film has this as its basic premise, you would think it could hold its audiences intelligence in enough respect to do even a small amount of research about what it is talking.
Moreover, when you are going to throw up as radical a concept as having all life on Earth created out of a Greek myth, then you sure as heck need to throw up some entertaining double-talk to make it sound believable. Contrarily, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life does none of this. It hints that Pandoras Box was the Sunday school version and a cover story for a greater truth but avoids offering any details about what Pandoras Box and the term anti-life means and, more importantly, any discussion of where the box might have came from in the first place. In actuality, the Box and Cradle are nothing more than Hitchcockian McGuffins, which the film has gone out of its way to make as generic as possible. The rest of the plot plays like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) redux the quest for the mythological artefact, wherein the hero(ine) is requested to go by the secret service for the good of the nation; the need to recruit an old flame to lead them to the artefact; and the same well-dressed villain racing in competition to get the artefact for nefarious purposes, who undergoes a climactic meltdown after he opens the box.
It is worth comparing Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film that inspired the original Tomb Raider game. Raiders of the Lost Ark put its hero through increasingly improbable stunts and action sequences but there was not a single moment where you were not enthralled, even as some of the action started becoming ridiculous. The reason was that Steven Spielberg gave us a personal investment in his hero in the presence of Harrison Ford and directed the action with a breathless suspense that kept you on the edge of the seat and made you believe that Ford might be in mortal danger at any moment. In comparison to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life feels only like a series of scenes where stunt-people do occasionally interesting things. Jan de Bont is endlessly throwing in random unconnected scenes with motorcycle stunts racing along the Great Wall of China, Angelina Jolie parachuting into action, her shooting at targets while racing along on a horse (a horse that is also capable of skidding) and kendo duelling. Even her entrance is conducted as a series of stunt sequences where she arrives aboard a jet ski bike while clad in a bikini and prefers to spend several minutes doing loops and jumps on the waves rather than merely pull up alongside the boat.
The action sequences have the feel, not of dramatic sequences but of people conducting novelty stunts diving off a tower in parachute suits, Jolie and Gerard Butler descending a cliff-face on ropes upside down, a choreographed display of sword duelling with an antique musket. Indeed, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life reminds less of Raiders of the Lost Ark than of the mind-numbing XXX (2002), which tried to conduct an action movie as a series of extreme sports novelty stunt sequences. Even the sets have an improbability three-tiered pagodas, neon signs on pulleys across rooftops, wires running across the roofs of temples, armies of terracotta warriors where you can tell from the first time they are introduced what types of stunts are about to be staged there.
The result is not unlike the Roger Moore James Bond films where Moore kept going through the most absurdly over-the-top action stunts until all that one could do is sit back and look at the ridiculousness and artistry of the show the stunt people were putting on only Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life lacks the good grace that the Bond series did in at least having Moore wink asides to the audience to show they should not be taking it any more seriously than he was. Bad and all as most of the Moore Bond films were, they at least never took the ridiculousness too seriously; this does. As heroes, both James Bond and Indiana Jones have the same superhuman invincibility and ridiculously high skills that Lara Croft does. They work, she doesnt, simply because in all cases there is something else there to make the character endearing in the Indiana Jones films, there is Steven Spielberg to keep the suspense on the edge of the seat and Harrison Fords effortless ability to establish a wry charismatic warmth with an audience; in the Bond films, there is the suave sophistication of Sean Connery and to a lesser extent Roger Moore. On the other hand, Lara Croft lacks anything there is Angelina Jolie who looks physically perfect but fails to display a single human flaw; theres Jan de Bont who conducts action not as though the lead character was in peril but as if it were a grab bag of novelty stunts he were putting on for some extreme sports adventure show; and a script (as in the original film) that loudly signals that the writers are not taking any of it any more seriously than the level of a childrens cartoon.
On the plus side, Gerard Butler is well cast. At the time, the Scottish-born Butler was emerging as a worthy new leading man in films like Dracula 2000 (2000), The Phantom of the Opera (2004) and once even mentioned as a successor in the role of James Bond, before his big break-out role in 300 (2007). He has a rugged conviction and handsomeness that one had no trouble believing, unlike Angelina Jolie. However, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is her vehicle and he is almost entirely sidelined, particularly during the action sequences, as though his being there may have shone her up too much.
(Winner in this sites Worst Films of 2003 list.).