Familiarity with the “Tomb Raider” video game series isn’t required when it comes to enjoying the “Tomb Raider” reboot. By the time it gets gunning on its second act, shrewd audiences should be able to identify not only broad strokes of gameplay, but also whole missions required of Alicia Vikander in her quest to, well, raid tombs and such. Roar Uthaug’s new feature is positively jittery with action sequences, hopscotching from one scene to the next with little connective tissue. That’s okay: When “Tomb Raider” digs into its more creative action, including a breathless bike race through London and a genuinely queasy shipwreck, it’s about as entertaining as popcorn entertainment gets these days. It’s when the film falls back on the old tropes that things grind to a halt.
Mostly based on a 2013 update to the game, this “Tomb Raider” offers a modernized heroine who wears a lot of sensible pants when embarking on her various missions. This Lara Croft is rarely sexualized by those around her — predominantly men, it should be noted — and even the film’s principal villain is inclined to compare her to his own daughters rather than go a skeezier route. The film doesn’t even attempt to shoehorn in a romantic subplot, though Vikander’s chemistry with unlikely partner Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is crackling and fun. And it’s certainly refreshing to see her share the screen with a handsome, decades-older man (Dominic West) who’s her father, not her love interest. (Remember “Tulip Fever”?)
While the Angelina Jolie-starring originals picked up with Lara already in full possession of her tomb-raiding gifts, the update hedges closer to prequel. This new Lara is a scrappy adrenaline junkie who spends her time getting the crap kicked out of her during boxing lessons (for fun) and tooling around London on her bike, delivering food (for money). Yes, she comes from great wealth, but that’s not something anyone else seems to know, and Lara is getting by mostly by her wits. The Croft fortune, one made by her hard-driving businessman father Lord Richard Croft (West), could all be hers, but Lara — who, at one point announces she’s “just not that kind of Croft” — refuses to step up. If Lara takes over Croft Holdings, she also signs paperwork that asserts that Richard is deceased. It’s quite a pickle.
Despite a fresher heroine, “Tomb Raider” still has all sorts of retrograde video game movie tropes. A cheesy voiceover serves as dunderheaded prologue, and all but consumes the narrative motion of the second act; flashbacks get out of hand in their attempts to round out Lara and Richard’s relationship. (In the film’s final moments, it even flashes back to a scene that happened a mere 90 seconds prior.)
As reasons for Richard’s disappearance soon emerge, it sets both Lara and the film itself on a wild new track. Turns out Richard was also something of an amateur archeologist, and he went missing while searching for the hidden tomb of Queen Himiko, who was trapped on a distant island because of her “dark magic,” the kind that kills with the touch of a hand. Richard wanted to keep it closed, but he wasn’t the only one searching for it.
Enter the “get to distant island holding the tomb of a dark magic queen” portion of the “Tomb Raider” mission quest. Lara heads to Hong Kong to track her father’s final steps, eventually leading her to the terrifying island of Yamatai. It’s populated with ruined prisoners, a bunch of big dudes with bigger guns and lead bad dude Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, who owns this kind of character). Everyone is eager to find Himiko’s tomb and crack it open — why a tomb built to hold a murderous queen includes a combination lock, we’ll never know — and what follows is zippy quest to see who can do it first.
The film’s second act is essentially mission after mission, where Lara ticks off boxes like “survive fall into river,” “get satellite phone,” “save the prisoners,” and “jump over that thing,” followed by “jump over that other thing.” By the time it lurches into its final third, “Tomb Raider” feels more like a video game than a movie. Our refurbished heroine at least stumbles on the way to her biggest action-centric victories (how she stays alive is definitely a special piece of movie magic); she often uses her brain to solve problems, instead of opting to punch and kick her way through them. She’s got some growing to do, but it’s a fine enough start for Vikander (and Lara).
The creative team behind “Tomb Raider” seems to bank on just such an assertion, as the final 10 minutes slavishly begs for a sequel. Lara may have found her way out of this particular tomb raid, but the film’s conclusion is dedicated to laying out what’s to come next, introducing both a brand new big bad villain and callbacks to earlier game incarnations. It seems inevitable that Lara will be back for more; next time, maybe the whole thing can feel just a smidge more like its own film.
“Tomb Raider” will be in theaters on Friday, March 16.