One of the pleasures of mediocre tentpole movies is watching our favorite TV actors stroll through them, earning paychecks. Tomb Raider offers a double dose of slumming small-screen thespians: Dominic West ("The Affair," "The Wire") and Walton Goggins ("Justified"). But neither they nor anything else can make this rote action-adventure exciting.
The unmemorable Lara Croft: Tomb Raider duology (2001 and 2003), starring Angelina Jolie, marked the first effort to translate the long-running Tomb Raider video-game series to the screen. In 2013, the game received a "gritty" reboot, and now the film series has one, too.
The material is still your basic Indiana Jones homage: Girl raids ancient tombs; girl fights people who want to raid ancient tombs for more nefarious reasons. But gone is the Jessica Rabbit absurdity of heroine Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), who is now lean, mean and first seen getting her ass whipped at a London boxing gym. Director Roar Uthaug, who made the scary Norwegian disaster movie The Wave, seems to be going for a more reality-based Tomb Raider. The problem is, that's a contradiction in terms.
Our story opens with Lara, heiress to a corporate empire, scrounging out a living as a bike courier because she refuses to sign a document declaring her missing father (West) dead. Her faith that her beloved daddy is alive is vindicated by the discovery of a secret chamber full of forged passports, maps and mysterious artifacts, which inspires her to muse aloud, "Dad, what were you up to?"
That's typical of the film's dialogue, which spells things out without wit or style. The plot is pure silliness: Having learned that her dad was seeking the tomb of an evil queen on a "forbidden" island, Lara instantly heads there. She takes only one companion (Daniel Wu) and makes virtually no preparations. Yet Uthaug treats this popcorn narrative with solemnity.
And Vikander trudges studiously through it, striving to bring dramatic gravity to Lara's battles with ancient booby traps and gun-toting bad guys. The actor was magnetic in Ex Machina, but all she really does well here is suffer, and none of that suffering adds up to much.
For instance, the film's most thrilling set piece, involving a crashed plane and a waterfall, leaves Lara gravely injured. Uthaug extends the scene to highlight her agony; we could be watching a dark survival thriller where recklessness has consequences. A couple scenes later, however, she's cured, and it's time to raid a tomb and solve some puzzles!
A movie with this level of tonal whiplash needs a big, bold, charismatic star to keep the audience grounded with sly winks and nudges — a Nicolas Cage, a Gal Gadot. Vikander isn't that person.
In her defense, even Goggins, who specializes in colorful, semi-unhinged villains, can't do much with his role as the heavy here. We're told that living on the cursed island has driven him mad, yet he expresses his Colonel Kurtz-itude in wooden lines like "You shouldn't have come here, Lara Croft." Even Maze Runner: The Death Cure, in which the actor recently appeared with his nose digitally removed, gave him juicier material.
Given that the cartoonish, Jolie-starring Tomb Raiders were pretty boring, it's easy to see why Uthaug would try a more sober approach to the franchise. But he never succeeds in combining Saturday-serial fun with a sense of dread, the way Steven Spielberg did in that other movie series about tomb raiding. Maybe some ancient properties are best left undisturbed.