Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
Rare is it for me to be so pleased with a bad movie. People who know my tastes know that I value a certain kind of bad movie, of course, but that's not to what I refer. "Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" (I refuse to preface that with "Lara Croft", dammit) is no "Blood Diner" or "Nude for Satan". Hell, it's not even "Zombie Lake". It is indeed a simple bad movie. But therein lies its redeeming facet -- its mere garden-variety badness. Its safe, boring mediocrity means that it's far, far better than the disastrous first film in the (now probably dead) series.
The main improvement was displacing Simon West from the director's chair and substituting Jan de Bont. Granted, this is one of the few occasions in which de Bont's directorial hand could be considered an upgrade, but so it goes. With de Bont at the helm, we can at least be assured that the action scenes will be decipherable. (I seriously believe Simon West introduces himself in public as "Not Michael Bay".) And not only are they decipherable, they're actually fairly competent. Save for the dreadful opening setpiece, the action in this film is not bad. Things blow up, guns are fired, asses are righteously kicked. At times, I could almost understand Roger Ebert's enthusiasm for this. (Well, okay, really only once -- during the attack by the shadow-creature thingys -- but these days, understanding at all what Ebert's on about is impressive.)
Alas, all this carnage had to be harnessed to a script. And while de Bont and co. go out of their way to make the story totally irrelevant, those annoying plot interludes occasionally poke their dirty snouts in where they aren't welcome. Watching a film like this makes one long for the grand old days of silent film; certainly sound technology might have been slower in coming if people had known that it would have been utilized for dialogue like "You can break my wrist, but I'm still going to kiss you." Even so, this crap script represents an improvement over part one, if for no other reason than we're not really asked to give a damn about the character's emotional lives. Part one's biggest and most embarrassing misstep was the goopy I-miss-Daddy subplot -- the film aimed for pathos, overshot and ended up pathetic instead. Here, everything is brought down to its essence. The bad guy wants to open Pandora's Box because he's the bad guy. Lara kicks ass because she can. What more do you need? There's some nonsense about a past relationship with the convict helping her find the Box (which culminates in an awful coda, the closest this comes to echoing its predecessor), but for the most part this film exists to show things being destroyed, not hearts being healed. Which, considering the talents involved, is probably a good thing.
Don't get me wrong -- none of this is actually a recommendation. It's still a genuinely bad movie. As I said before, the script is lousy and the plot is perfunctory and Angelina Jolie turns in a terrible performance playing the most boring action heroine in history. (Her lack of enthusiasm for this project is palpable.) Plus, there's a scene where Jolie subdues a shark by punching it in the nose, which may be realistic but still looks unbelievably silly. I wouldn't want you to go out and see this based on my scribblings here. There's better ways to spend your money. But it's not soul-suckingly godawful, and for that I shall remain grateful. Plus, it gives me hope for another reason: Between this and the aggresively minimalist "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever", it looks like we may be one step closer to some hack disregarding the plot so much that he moves into abstraction and accidentally makes the great American avant-garde action flick. But that's another essay.