Let's face it, the James Bond franchise has become rather limp lately. "The World Is Not Enough" was a debacle of miscasting and an an endless parade of meaningless subplots and tertiary characters. "Die Another Day" suffered from much of the same, but was also saddled with an inexplicable amount of stereo feedback and one of the oddest (if catchiest) theme songs in recent memory. The series has been re-energized with the new entry "The Cradle Of Life," a high-spirited, far-reaching film that doesn't quite succeed but is such an improvement on the originals that you're ready to overlook all that.
Actually, this is a review of "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life", the sequel to 2001's abysmally dull video-game-based film "Tomb Raider." Angelina Jolie is back as sexy, gun-toting archeologist Lara Croft, and at first glance, it's easy to mistake her for Bond, Jane Bond. Lara is a British citizen of refined taste, highly competent in various forms of weaponry, travels around the globe to exotic locations, has friends (and lovers) in virtually every port, uses a wide variety of nifty gadgets, has an amusing yet dry form of wit, looks fabulous, and routinely saves the world from a madman bent on global domination. She's a better 007 than Timothy Dalton in any case.
The film begins with Lara diving into a sunken temple off the coast of Greece. While there, she is attacked by Chinese mercenaries, her support crew killed and left for dead, the mercenaries making off with a mysterious glowing orb. Seems that mad scientist Jonathan Reiss (Ciaran Hinds) is looking for Pandora's Box, and the orb is the key to finding it. Lara is appointed by MI:6 with stopping Reiss because opening the box would unleash an amazingly nasty plague upon the world. Besides her support staff of Hillary (Chris Barrie) and computer expert Bryce (Noah Taylor), Lara joins forces with ex-lover Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), a shifty mercenary and the only person who knows how to get to the mercenaries who stole the orb in the first place. And of course, time is running out.
Jolie is excellent as Lara Croft, and there probably isn't an actress around who would be better cast in the role. Jolie has the physicality, the look, the voice, and the attitude to pull off the role effortlessly. She was the only redeeming factor in the first film, and she's great to watch here. The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Hinds refrains from chewing up too much of the scenery, but he brings to mind some of the more notable Bond villains of recent times. Butler is great to look at, but his performance is far too low-key and deadpan for a movie as bombastic as this one wants to be, especially when he's paired with Jolie, who enters each seen with a relishing look in her eyes. Taylor again acts as a dry kind of comic relief, and he displays far more chemistry with Jolie than Butler does.
One of the biggest improvements in this film is the director. Replacing Simon West (responsible for the monotonous "Con Air") is Jan de Bont ("Speed"), a much more competent director even if some of his films are only barley entertaining ("The Haunting"). de Bont has a knack for action on a small scale, most vividly in a gun-fight staged in a laboratory/office, but his large scale pieces, like Lara body-gliding off of one of Hong Kong's tallest buildings, lack drama. Still, de Bont has chosen good locations and sets for the film, and there is a blessedly welcome lack of the "Matrix"-style visuals and candy-colored bombast so popular in action films of recent memory. He is nothing if not up to task. The film operates well within its own set of rules and physics, unlike many other films that tend to sacrifice internal logic for cheap stunts.
As much of an improvement on the first film as this is, there are still flaws. The script, while improving ten-fold on the original, still falls flat on several occasions, sometimes held up only by Jolie's confident line readings. At almost two hours, the film displays a desperate need for tighter scenes and a quicker pace while simultaneously leaving some scenes cut too quickly. The movie can be very easily divided into stages, which may hold true to the spirit of the video game's levels, but often leaves the audience doing nothing more than predicting when the DVD chapter cuts will occur in six months. Also, like the James Bond films, there is rarely any doubt that Lara will escape any dire situation she finds herself in. Like 007, we always know the hero will prevail in the end, which robs some scenes of the tension needed to excite the audience.
Despite some of these flaws, "The Cradle Of Life" is a fine movie and a good way to spend 2 hours on a summer afternoon. Jolie obviously enjoys the role, and if nothing else, the film is worth it for that alone. Here's hoping the third entry into the series is even better than the this one. 7 out of 10.