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LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Iain Glen, Noah Taylor, Daniel Craig
Director:  Simon West
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  November 13, 2001

“So…time to save the universe again?”

“Absolutely.”

Film ***

I’ve been a fan of the Tomb Raider games for years.  They, in turn, have sapped many precious and irretrievable minutes of my life away, which I gladly surrendered all for the sake of the fleeting satisfaction of having beaten just one more level.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that the game’s heroine, Lara Croft, would be coming to the big screen, but I must confess, I wasn’t enthusiastic when I first heard the part was going to Angelina Jolie…an actress I have nothing against, but who seemed to me all wrong for the British adventurer.

The movie debuted, and I cheerfully admit I was wrong.  Not only was Ms. Jolie right for the role, she was perfect.  Her dedication to her pre-shoot training in acrobatics, weapons, and fighting made her the absolute embodiment of the role…though I feel the need to apologize to our friends in Great Britain for having taken both Lara Croft and Bridget Jones away from them in one year.

I liked the film, though many didn’t…expectations may have been to high for some.  I just wanted an action packed adventure film with a little humor, a little fantasy, and a whole lot of the Lara Croft I’d come to know and love over the years, and that’s exactly what I got.  And to be frank, I liked the movie even better on second viewing.

After a memorable opening training sequence with a rather ill-tempered robot (“Was it programmed to stop before it took my head off?”) we learn a little about Ms. Croft and her background (a lot different than what was originally penned for the video game, but better).  Her father, Lord Croft (Jolie’s real life dad Voight) died when she was very young, but his memory has stayed with her through his stories and journals.

It turns out, he had left one final but major assignment for his now grown daughter, and nothing short of the fate of the world hangs in the balance.  It involves a tale of a mystical triangle with the power to control space and time.  A long time ago, it was separated into two pieces which were buried at opposite ends of the earth for fear of its power falling into the wrong hands.  Now, with a once-in-5,000 year alignment of the planets happening very soon (the event needed to re-activate the completed triangle), Lara finds herself in a race against time to prevent a sect called the Illuminati, led by (name, actor), from assembling the triangle first.

This is the kind of plot that I think the game lovers immediately embraced, because it went for fantasy and defied logic, and created an excuse for globetrotting adventures and explorations for our heroine.  It may have also been what turned so many critics off.

Ms. Jolie, as mentioned, is quite perfect.  She brings Lara’s class, wit, and fierce independence to life on the screen, and she can deliver a line as silly as “The all-seeing eye!” with as much conviction as “Rosebud!”.  She also looks the part, too, thanks to some good costuming and Simon West’s camera, which photographs her ample bosoms as lovingly as it would Spielberg’s Devil’s Tower or Kubrick’s black monoliths.

His action sequences are fast, furious and inventive…one of the most unforgettable is referred to as the “bungee ballet”, which has to be seen to be believed.  Amazingly enough, according to the featurettes, there was no stunt double for Ms. Jolie for the entire scene!  Others involve more elaborate settings, as a temple where stone creatures come to life for a big fight scene, or the finale, which features an amazing giant moving replica of our solar system, which Lara has to navigate to bring the events to their conclusion.

It’s been far too long since we’ve had a movie of this caliber with a strong, central female character.  I can’t really count Charlie’s Angels, which was played for camp and not believability.  Here, Lara uses her wits, her strength, her physical abilities and her charm with equal prowess, and no matter how fantastic her scenarios grow, we can still willingly buy into them.

Now that Ms. Croft has gotten her first taste of a big screen adventure, I kind of hope it won’t be the last, as long as the filmmakers realize what a terrific character she is.  And Angelina Jolie continues to portray her.

Video ***1/2

This is an impressive anamorphic transfer from Paramount that looks even better on disc than it did on the movie screen.  Many darker sequences, which I first found to be impossible to distinguish, are now rendered with greater detail and integrity.  With lots of extreme lighting schemes and locales, this picture is a visual wonder, and save for two very brief sequences where the images were so dark they created a tiny bit of shimmer, this presentation works wonders.  Colors are good throughout, and shown in widely varying palates, and image and detail level are quite sharp and crisp, even in wide angled deep focus shots.  All in all, a most impressive effort for what must be considered difficult source material!

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack has to be considered one of the year’s best offerings…it’s busy from beginning to end, with effects ranging from the grand and sweeping to the subtle and ambient.  All speakers are in on the action, with impressive dynamic range and smooth pans and crossovers.  The subwoofer adds plenty of bottom end to the explosive action scenes, and even the quieter moments where there might be bits of foreboding low rumblings.  In other words, this disc puts you right in the middle of the action and holds you there for 100 minutes…reference quality all the way.

Features ****

This is a loaded Special Collector’s Edition disc from Paramount that starts with some cool animated menus with sound (though the special features menu doesn’t actually show all items at once…a bit of bad judgment).  There are several good featurettes, beginning with “Digging Into Tomb Raider”, a half hour special with interviews and behind the scenes footage.  There are more specific featurettes as well, including my favorite, “Crafting Lara Croft”, which details the work and training Ms. Jolie endured to play the part.  There is also one on visual effects (8 scenes you can choose from), stunts, and a piece on the Tomb Raider video game phenomenon.

There is a good matter-of-fact style commentary track from director Simon West, who fleshes out some of the featurette info in his talk…he discusses why he eventually decided to do the film after initially turning it down, working with the actors, the development of ideas for certain sequences…and of course, he has nothing but praise for his leading lady and how far her physical abilities came along in her training.

Rounding out the disc are four deleted scenes (roughly edited), an interesting and well-done alternate title sequence (probably dropped because of its length), a good U2 music video, plus some extras for your DVD ROM.  A superb package all around!

Summary:

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is an eye-pleasing, fun, light bit of summer cinema that looks and sounds better than ever on DVD.  Angelina Jolie’s performance is the heart and soul of the film, and what makes it fun from beginning to end.  And frankly, it’s great to see a movie like this with a strong, independent female character at the helm.  Recommended.