It must be something in our DNA. What other than genetic heredity could account for our eternal hunger to see humans scurrying away from fast-approaching danger? Who remembers any part of the Indiana Jones saga better than the scene about our hero outrunning the rolling Bowling Ball of Doom? The box office returns are clear. We spend very little on films in which people kiss or dance together, but a movie where they sprint for safety as a nebula of flame erupts behind them is the easiest sell in the world.
In “Tomb Raider,” which reboots the immensely successful video game’s film franchise, we get Oscar-winning actress Alicia Vikander playing to the crowd in very good form. Her performance is agile on more than physical terms, every bit as emotionally nimble as you would want from a gifted actress who is slumming in a film with much atmosphere but little built-in story.
Vikander gives us a girl power adventurer who is brave, brainy and beautiful.
Not to mention that she’s also able to run marathons of escape from gunmen, slave holders, mythical curses and ancient yet remarkably speedy killing devices.
The film serves as an origin chronicle for Lara Croft, whom we meet as a London bicycle courier with championship pedal stamina, plucky skill in the fight gym and a winning sense of humor. She also would be the incalculably wealthy lady of a baronial estate if she accepted the terms of her father’s will. She considers it “his money, not mine.”
He vanished during vital research in the Pacific seven years ago, but his independent-minded daughter, not long out of her teens, insists there’s no proof he is dead. Because he didn’t mention anyone else in his will, the inheritance just sits there waiting for her to change her mind.
But she has other ideas. Taking a pawnshop loan on her only valuable possession, she sets off to find him. From the moment she boards a rust bucket Chinese freight ship with no crew beyond its heavy-drinking captain and buys a stormy passage to the Devil’s Triangle, things go bad. Then they get a lot worse than that, as Lara is marooned at a slave labor camp on the very island where her father disappeared.
As thrill-a-minute cliffhangers pile up to stratospheric heights, the film charts Lara’s evolution from spunky tomboy to daredevil globe-trotter. Vikander, winner of a supporting actress Oscar for 2015’s “The Danish Girl,” would be watchable in just about anything. Here she goes a long way toward making the cardboard character real and her transformation appealingly acted.
The blame goes to others that it’s not involvingly told. Directed with professional polish by Roar Uthaug (the Norwegian director of 2015’s fjord disaster thriller “The Wave”), the film delivers the obligatory vortexes of doom. It also boasts impressive emergencies, action sequences and surprise appearances by notable British actors who won’t be revealed here.
Walton Goggins (“The Hateful Eight”) is surprisingly credible as the chief antagonist, Mathias Vogel. No big villain, he’s evil’s middle management, a vile slave driver who just wants to complete the mission and leave this Pacific hell hole behind. Goggins is carefully quiet in ways that make a strong impression. Cold, hooded eyes and a bitter smile is all he needs to go full Simon Legree.
Moving characters from computer screens to film screens often has big risks and minimal rewards. Still, whatever possessed Vikander to play this iconic heroine has actually stood her in good stead. Her courageous Lara compares with Angelina Jolie’s overacted version like Daniel Craig’s 007 with Roger Moore’s. She’s committed to making all this nonsense watchable with a performance that adds snap and rhythm to every available scene.
While the plot has more holes than a bagel factory, the finale confidently hints at a sequel. As long as it’s Vikander who’s running from catastrophe, I’ll follow Lara anywhere.