Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life opens at a Greek wedding (not the Big Fat kind) on an isolated mountain in Greece. While this could have been a big-budget jab at the low-budget titan, I realized that this film would have no business making fun of something so much less expensive. Because not even the $90 million budget could get me to say that you should run out and see it. But if you are looking for a passable summer distraction, walk instead. Don’t waste your breath over this one, because you may need it for all the “sighs” that you will be tempted to mutter.
Angelina Jolie reprises her role as super sexy “Ms. Indiana Jones” Lara Croft, a cunning archeologist who is both Batman and Barbarella in one luscious gift-wrap. This time, the young explorer goes on a globetrotting adventure (as in the original) from Greece to China and culminating in Africa where she must locate a mythical sphere that will take her to the legendary Pandora’s Box. Joining Croft is ex-marine Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler, barely intelligible in many scenes), who is let out of prison to help Croft prevent evil chemical weapons dealer Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds) from exploiting the device to corner the market on bio-terrorism. Or something like that.
The biggest problem with The Cradle of Life is that it is too conscious that both critics and audiences alike united to practically riot at the disappointment of the first Tomb Raider adventure. Disregarding the possibility that some people may have enjoyed the original, Director Jan de Bont has deviated from a good formula to create a forgettable action film rather than a Saturday-matinee style serial. Like Mission: Impossible 2 (another spy-tech action sequel distributed by Paramount), this film is more akin to Commando than Raiders of the Lost Ark. While I appreciated this approach in the past, I actually enjoyed the original film (despite the drubbing) and am dismayed to see a sequel so set on forgetting that the original ever existed.
Only some of the blame lies with de Bont, though. Making a return to big-budget action is the veteran cinematographer who made himself a box-office draw with the back-to-back blockbusters Speed and Twister. Directing his second action sequel (the other was the loathsome Speed 2: Cruise Control), de Bont seems to be doing what is best for Croft and the studio, delivering a film without any of the rickety flair of his earlier action spectaculars. Had he applied his technique of making even a foot ladder seem like an instrument of destruction, this fight-happy sequel might have worked, or even surpassed the original.
The Cradle of Life is still positively colorless. At one point, Croft sports a shiny silver bodysuit that seems to have been intended to elicit not only drools from the predominately male audience but to add some kind of color other than the increasingly dull grays and green that encompass many of the film’s images. This is utterly devoid of energy and excitement, relying mostly on—you guessed it—special effects (which include some beastly creatures that resemble the cave troll from the original Lord of the Rings). Despite a worldwide adventure and a handsome array of techno-goodies, there is nothing to delight in over this film. Other than the fact that it maintains the same level of quality throughout. And unlike one of the previous nine big-budget sequels this past summer, The Cradle of Life is not psycho-numbingly self-important like The Matrix Reloaded and not jarringly sadistic like Bad Boys II. It goes from “ok” to “still ok.”
The fight scenes are well choreographed and the stunts are impressive and easy to follow (thanks to some sturdy camera moves). De Bont, who originated as an action cinematographer, still knows how to show us the action and let it settle in by keeping the camera at a distance. Maintaining the same level quality is not quite enough to save a film. The Cradle of Life ends up as this summer’s essential non-film: not poor enough to pan, not impressive enough to recommend. Sitting there in the theater in late July, I accepted that this was about as good as it was going to get.