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There’s Something Different About the New Lara Croft

The reboot of the "Tomb Raider" franchise sheds the original movie's camp, but its main character is more recognizably human.

Ilzek Kitshoff / 2017 Warner Bros / Entertainment Inc. / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

It is with a small shiver of self-disgust that I must sit down to write about the body of Alicia Vikander. The role she plays in her most recent movie is Lara Croft. Since 1996, Croft has run and jumped and spun across screens. In the old game Tomb Raider, she used to say “A-ha!” when she picked up something useful. Her breasts were sort of triangular, made of light and pixels. As a nod to that incarnation, Angelina Jolie in 2001 said “A-ha!” once to a bunch of huskies as she was escaping the tomb that she had raided.

In the new game, she is different. And so she is different in the new movie of the new game: more human, less funny, more abs than boobs. It’s a dizzying, serpentine flow of identities for a character who has kept little other than her name and her interest in tombs. Tomb Raider (2018) is based on Tomb Raider the video game (2013), which reimagined Tomb Raider (1996), which gave rise to the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), to which moviegoers will now compare Tomb Raider (2018). To add to the confusion, Croft’s Wikipedia page encourages you not to confuse her with Laura Croft, Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in July 2008.

Tomb Raider was rebooted from the ground up in 2013, reimagining Lara Croft’s backstory. Croft is no longer a superpowered and cartoonish woman, but a troubled human being whose body is more human than caricature. When you punch her, she reacts. The new movie follows its plot fairly closely, with a twist at the end.

Vikander-Croft is living in London, working to make ends meet as a delivery girl while boxing in her spare time. Her voice is posh and she quotes Shakespeare, but she lives in Hackney and sadly sips a cup of tea on the ledge of a run-down building. The reason she has not come into her enormous inheritance is that she refuses to admit that her long-missing father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) is dead, so she won’t sign the papers. After following some clues to a secret trove of Richard Croft’s papers, she realizes that he disappeared in search of a legendary buried queen called Himiko. She sets off for the remote island of Yamatai, on the way meeting a handsome sailor named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu).

Viewers should not attend Tomb Raider hoping for a reprise of all that delighted them in the 2001 version of Tomb Raider. All the camp has been stripped away in this reboot. You may recall that the 2001 movie began with Jolie hanging upside down, then fighting a robot. She beats the robot with her trademark two-guns-one-Lara moves, then takes the chip out of its brain, replacing it with one called “Lara’s Party Mix.” Then she takes a shower in erotic slow motion.

It was a gloriously silly movie. Clad in either her pneumatic vest or her pyjamas or a mixture of the two, Jolie spoke in an adorable attempt at a posh English accent. “They’re stealing my bloody clock!” she said. And they were—the villains had been sent by Jorah Mormont himself, Iain Glenn. He wanted to steal her clock to control time and space. The Illuminati were involved somehow. Jolie’s real life father Jon Voight played her dad in that film (his accent was oddly impeccable). In a beautiful bit of lingual mirroring, Daniel Craig was her love interest. His American accent was an absolute abomination.

In place of the 2001 movie’s comic antics, the 2018 version has filled in some great action, good characterization, and some new politics. On that last note, it’s a mixed bag. The fundamental premise of the Tomb Raider franchise is full-on, orthodox orientalism. Croft is a wealthy white archaeologist who discovers mystical secrets inside “Eastern” tombs, destroying artifacts and killing nameless foreign people to pursue her personal quest. The 2001 movie even denoted Iain Glenn as evil by surrounding him with “Eastern” luxuries like music and hookahs and girls.

In the new movie, not a great deal is different except that Lara Croft is joined on her journey by a man from Hong Kong called Lu Ren. This changes things considerably, since his father joined hers on the quest that led to both of their disappearance. It’s a convenient bit of plot-shoehorning, but it does mean that as Croft enters Yamatai to find that the evil Mathias (Walton Goggins) is pressganging shipwrecked sailors into servitude, the pair of heroes are automatically on the workers’ side.

The chief problem is that Daniel Wu is terribly underused. A Californian architecture graduate who has starred in countless Chinese-language films, Wu is a magnetic actor. He told Slate in 2015 that he has not in the past considered working in Hollywood, because, in his words, “I knew from growing up that they wouldn’t put my kind of people onscreen. There were no decent roles for Asians, much less Asian males.”

Wu appears in about half the scenes that he should; he is missed not least because he has a very serious martial arts pedigree that could have amped up the action. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that wouldn’t mix well with the new Lara’s less explosive approach to fighting (she uses a bow and arrow, having learned archery for fun in her childhood back garden). I longed for Wu to return to the screen whenever he left it.

The action that Tomb Raider does deliver, however, is great. How long I have waited for a good waterfall scene! As Alicia Vikander wriggled along the dilapidated skeleton of a plane crashed into a cliff, she redeemed the whole film for me. The slightly poor script fell away like water off a very high edge. In another, earlier scene, Vikander flees then fights a group of young men in Hong Kong, leaping from boat to dock to boat. It’s gorgeously done, as is a storm at sea that destroys Lu Ren’s boat.

Vikander does extremely well to inhabit Croft with imagination and distinctiveness. Perhaps her best performance comes from the scene where she kills a man for the first time. She’s shocked, and horrified, and she screams. Because of that credible emotional dimension, Tomb Raider’s action is more satisfying to watch. If that’s not for you, the triangular breasts of Laras past still remain.