PLOT An aimless young woman sets out to find her vanished father.
CAST Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu
RATED PG-13 (violence, macabre images)
BOTTOM LINE A vast improvement on the Angelina Jolie franchise.
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”).
“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.”
SAME CHARACTER, NEW ACTOR
Alicia Vikander steps into Angelina Jolie’s butt-kicking shoes as Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider.” Here are four film franchises that also got a face-lift when a new actor took over as the main character.
CHARLIE CHAN Swedish actor Warner Oland played the Chinese detective in 16 films before succumbing to bronchial pneumonia in 1938. He was replaced by the similarly non-Asian-looking Sidney Toler, who starred as Chan in 22 films until his death in 1947.
THE FALCON George Sanders starred as the sophisticated sleuth in three movies. The fourth entry, “The Falcon’s Brother” (1942), marked a passing of the torch as Tom Conway, the real-life brother of Sanders, assumed the role of the Falcon for nine more movies.
JAMES BOND Sean Connery’s wit was as dry as a martini as 007 in five films between 1962 and 1967. After George Lazenby proved an inferior replacement in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), Connery returned once more for “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971). Bond was subsequently played by Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. Even Connery did one final stint at Bond in “Never Say Never Again” (1983).
BATMAN Michael Keaton played the Caped Crusader in “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992). After Keaton hung up his cape, the franchise lived on with, respectively, Val Kilmer, George Clooney and, most successfully, Christian Bale as the Dark Knight.
— Daniel Bubbeo