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Alicia Vikander is fantastic as Lara Croft. But the famed adventurer’s greatest mission is still out there: finding the ultimate Tomb Raider screenplay.

Elevation

Alicia Vikander is Lara Croft
Alicia Vikander is Lara Croft

There’s a message tucked away in this reboot of Tomb Raider. It’s not hidden and it’s not particularly overt, either. But it’s there, nonetheless, for those who are prepared to decipher it. The message: Nobody does it better than Indiana Jones. And this episode, which resets the playing field by going back to Lara’s first adventure, borrows heavily not only from prior Tomb Raider video games, but also Dr. Jones, particularly The Last Crusade.

Puzzles, ancient history, mysteries, humor, exotic locations, artful pacing, buried treasure, mystical forces. As Indy would ask, “How hard can it be?” Indeed, Indy made it look easy, but so many others, including Jack Sparrow, Benjamin Gates, Robert Langdon and Lara, have proven it’s harder than it looks.

Consider the Tomb Raider cast. The talent is crazy good. Alicia Vikander, Academy Award winner (The Danish Girl). Kristin Scott Thomas, Academy Award nominee (The English Patient). Derek Jacobi (Gladiator), an esteemed actor comfortable with Shakespeare. Granted, Tomb Raider has managed to attract top talent in the past. Angelina Jolie was also an Oscar winner (Girl, Interrupted) and her dig colleagues included the likes of Daniel Craig and Gerard Butler.

Here, the cast knocks it out of the park, giving the characters, for the most part, a fresh humanity. As far as movies based on video games go, this one’s about as good as it gets – or at least as good as it’s gotten so far.

Adaptation

This Tomb Raider presents a much more grounded Lara Croft compared to the glamorous sex object portrayed by Angelina Jolie. As a younger Lara, she’s still headstrong and reckless as all get out, but in a disarming way. Given her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter), has been missing for seven years and presumed dead, she’s entitled to inherit the entire Croft empire. But doing so would require signing paperwork that would, in turn, be the final acknowledgement he’s never coming back.

Instead of doing that, Lara skipped attending Oxford or Cambridge in favor of a much more modest lifestyle supported by the meager income of a bicycle courier. That puts even smaller things like her kickboxing lessons in financial peril. As the saying goes, “No pay, no play.”

With the paperwork finally in front of her, it looks like Lara might get her financial house in order and move into the master bedroom of stately Croft Manor. Instead, she spots a clue to her father’s whereabouts among the documents and the puzzle-solving begins; the paperwork can wait.

In Lara’s cluttered life, there’s no time for romance. It’s actually rather nice as a formula-buster, and it very well might be something of a trend, following romance-less leading men like Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express and Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Jack Sparrow was another loveless romantic, albeit one surrounded by the love stories of others, like Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner. For that matter, the recent spate of Marvel and DC movies are rather loveless — and sometimes even joyless — wonders.

What’s sweet is how the matter is handled in Tomb Raider. The only reference to romance is an unspoken suggestion a young man working at an Indian restaurant would like to date Lara. He wimps out, completely speechless. She scurries on to her next activity.

Integration

One of the things that makes the Indiana Jones movies — and stories told in a tangentially similar vein, such as Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels — so entertaining is the integration of original fiction, traditional myth and real history. The more controversial the subject, the better; the more grandiose the interpretation, the better. Consider it. Each Indy movie includes real historical references (yep, even the sadly misunderstood Crystal Skull; all of the plays on the 1950s are marvelously placed).

And Tomb Raider is no exception.

Harking back to the first Tomb Raider video game, the history in question relates to Himiko, the first queen of Japan. Let the embellishment begin — and apply it liberally! She’s identified as the Queen of Death and she’s surrounded in dark magic and mythical intrigue that sets the stage for a climax eerily reminiscent of The Last Crusade.

There’s plenty of creepy goodness to be had in such a setup, even as aberrant as Himiko’s historical interpretation might be. It’s fun. But, like so many booby traps successfully avoided by Dr. Jones, Himiko’s promises of forbidden treasure and world-dominating power get knocked about with some weak storytelling moves. The mystical ending lacks magic — and terror — creating a vacuum of satisfaction.

To its credit, though, there’s enough “movie-movie” goodness in this outing to overcome the flat finale.

Escalation

Another staple of this mash-up genre is villainy. For Lara, that comes in the person of Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). Vogel has shades of Colonel Kurtz. Back home, he’s a family man with two daughters, but on the lost island of doom, Yamatai, he’s slowly going mad. As a pawn in the machinations of Trinity, there’s less personal “history” to drive this antagonist, unlike Dr. Jones’ rival, Rene Belloq, But his introduction is well done.

And the stage is set for an intriguing showdown between a couple of the lead characters. The plot could very well indeed thicken. It’s at the very end when Lara picks up her infamous pair of pistols and strikes her famous pose – in a most unlikely setting, a pawn shop. But it’s a bit of humor that fits this version of the character.

Vikander’s Lara trades in the grandiose cheese of Jolie’s adventures from the aughts in favor of a softer humor. As she struggles to survive a jungle chase and manages to enter a crashed plane precariously perched above a waterfall, the plane begins to buckle. With the same quietly humorous spirit as Indy, she quips, “Really?” And there’s a nice reintroduction of Lara at the reception desk of Croft Holdings. No longer there as a courier, she announces herself as Lara Croft to the previously dismissive person at the front desk. It’s just like Bruce’s reintroduction to Wayne Enterprises in Batman Begins.

Sure, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but this reboot ends with the humor primed and the pistols loaded. Please, dear movie gods, bring Alicia back for another attempt at finding the ultimate Tomb Raider screenplay.