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‘Tomb Raider’ review: Vast improvement over the Angelina Jolie original

Alicia Vikander assumes the role of Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider." / Warner Bros. Pictures / MGM / Ilze Kitshoff

Lara Croft, the strutting superwoman with thigh-mounted pistols first played by Angelina Jolie in 2001, returns in the unlikeliest of incarnations in the reboot “Tomb Raider.” Now played by Alicia Vikander, Lara is a rugged but vulnerable heroine who wears functional sportswear and doesn’t even carry a gun. What’s more, over the course of this surprisingly entertaining film, Lara takes far more punishment than she dishes out.

Fans of this dormant franchise will notice the difference between the new and original “Tomb Raider” movies immediately. Both begin with sparring-partner scenes, but while Jolie’s Lara used martial arts and bullets to defeat a robot in the first film, Vikander’s Lara gets a beatdown from a better-skilled opponent in a London kickboxing gym. In that moment, the new Lara Croft goes from video game avatar — which is how she began, in the mid-1990s — to a bona fide character we actually care about.

Lara also gets a back story that lends her some depth. Her father (Dominic West) is still a vanished adventurer, but now Lara is an aimless urbanite who can’t bring herself to claim her vast inheritance. (The screenwriting team includes Geneva Robertson-Dworet, of Marvel’s upcoming “Captain Marvel.”) When a new clue inspires Lara to follow her dad’s trail, she hires a handsome young boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), to take her to a tiny Japanese island where Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen, is purportedly buried. (Cue the usual ancient technology and booby traps.) There, Lara will meet her father’s deadly rival, Mathias Vogel, played by the indispensable Walton Goggins (“The Hateful Eight,” HBO’s “Vice Principals”).

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“Tomb Raider” doesn’t bother hiding its mountains of debt to the Indiana Jones films. Nevertheless, director Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian credited with making his country’s first disaster film, “The Wave,” is determined to make this Hollywood product feel as fresh as possible. His set pieces have visual style — one, involving a wrecked plane teetering atop a waterfall, is terrific — and his action sequences are satisfyingly rough (there are beatings, drownings, impalements, you name it). Vikander, for her part, never makes it look easy. We’re with her, tooth and nail, all the way.

“Tomb Raider” is no masterpiece, but it’s rare to see a franchise reinvent its hero so dramatically and so successfully. It’s enough to make you wonder what these filmmakers could do with “Tank Girl.”