Alicia Vikander Makes a Persuasive Lara Croft in the New-and-Somewhat-Improved 'Tomb Raider'

The Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander has a talent for liberating her characters from states of confinement, emotionally if not physically. Those who noticed her before her big Hollywood breakthrough might recall the vividness of her performance as an uncomfortably corseted Danish queen in "A Royal Affair" (2012). Even more impressive was her work in the 2015 science-fiction thriller "Ex Machina," in which she turned a meticulously designed female android into an eerie post-human imitation of life.

With "Tomb Raider," a sturdy, serviceable new action extravaganza inspired by the popular video-game adventures of Lara Croft, Vikander has risen to meet a similar conceptual challenge. It isn't easy for an actor to take a soulless digital avatar and make her a persuasive amalgam of flesh, blood and feeling. Nor, for that matter, is it easy to follow in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie, whose performances in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) and "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" (2003) helped her become a Hollywood supernova.

What makes Vikander's interpretation work is that this new-and-somewhat-improved "Tomb Raider" has been conceived as both a back-to-basics origin story and a smart, forward-thinking spin on a character with a tricky representational history. Since her first video-game appearance in 1996, Lara has always uneasily straddled the line between objectification and empowerment: She was always fierce and determined, but with her crudely animated pillow lips, buxom proportions and clingy tank top, she had also clearly been conceived with joystick-wielding adolescent boys in mind.

None of this is meant to deny the natural human impulse to appreciate beautiful faces and toned bodies, an impulse that the movies have always been uniquely good at accommodating. Nonetheless, the makers of the successful 2013 "Tomb Raider" video-game reboot made a few shrewd course corrections that have carried over to this big-screen, live-action entertainment, giving Lara a less full-figured appearance and replacing her short shorts with trousers.

The tank top stayed, though, and Vikander steps into it -- and crucially, into the character's mythology and emotional backstory -- with unsurprising ease. She is allowed to rebuild the character from the inside out, piece by piece. Her Lara Croft is one tough fighter but also vulnerable and untested, an action heroine with little to lose and everything to prove. It's telling that when deadly circumstances force her to exact her first kill, in self-defense, she reacts not with a satisfied smirk but with a sharp inhalation of breath, as well as an expression somewhere between devastation and disbelief.

That's a far cry from Jolie's version of Lara, who swooped into the movies fully formed, dangling from a rope with lethal poise and a pair of guns strapped to her gams. By contrast, the first time we meet Vikander's Lara 2.0, she's hanging around London, absorbing body blows at a boxing gym one minute, hopping on her bike to make food deliveries the next.

You wouldn't guess from these ground-level early scenes that Lara is in fact the daughter of the wealthy archaeologist Richard Croft (Dominic West, in flashbacks), presumed dead after vanishing years ago while investigating the mysterious legend of the ancient Japanese queen Himiko on the jungle island of Yamatai. (Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi slide elegantly in and out of the proceedings as key figures overseeing the Croft estate and its many international holdings.)

A message concealed in one of Richard's old puzzle-boxes grants Lara access to her father's archive of materials on the Himiko project. Tasked with finding out how he met his end, she jets off to Hong Kong, where she befriends a drunk, rifle-toting boatman, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), who eventually sobers up and agrees to steer her through tempestuous waters to Yamatai. This may be as good a place as any to note that "Tomb Raider" was directed by Norway's Roar Uthaug, who previously directed the 2016 disaster flick "The Wave," and who once again proves a peerless choreographer of massive walls of computer-generated water.

Uthaug is almost as confident on dry land, sweeping Lara and Lu Ren along in a flurry of brisk if hastily edited action sequences, and staging one hard-to-top doozy of a scene involving a cliff, a waterfall and a downed plane. Before long the two of them fall into the hands of the sneering Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who oversees several unfortunate Chinese laborers trying to dig their way into Himiko's secret vault.

There ultimately isn't much to that vault, at least beyond the usual array of temple-of-doom wall puzzles and booby traps. The villains and their priceless coveted artifacts may be nominally new, but the dramatic template used by the writers, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, has been more or less recycled from the 2001 movie: Once more Lara must grapple with her daddy-abandonment issues and stop some regulation bad guys from laying hands on an ancient, incalculably destructive force.

If anything has changed about Lara Croft, it's not her story or her identity so much as the cultural and political landscape onto which she has reemerged. That shifting landscape partly explains the decision on the part of the filmmakers and the video-game designers to cut down on the ogle factor. It also explains why the filmmakers made the effort to cast Vikander opposite an appealing Asian American star like Wu, though the script gives him little substantial to play after a promising early stretch.

Most significantly, perhaps, this "Tomb Raider" arrives at a moment when female protagonists are far better represented in mainstream American action cinema than they were when the Jolie movies were released. Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor may remain the most venerable examples of this tradition, but fans now have Wonder Woman, Imperator Furiosa and Katniss Everdeen -- who, like Lara Croft, wields a mean bow and arrow. They have the women of "Black Panther" and "Annihilation," plus Alice from "Resident Evil." They have Captain Marvel to look forward to.

None of this abundance dilutes the basic satisfaction of watching Vikander's Lara shed her nice-girl inhibitions and embrace her destiny, even if that means predictably swinging, leaping, hacking and punching her way through another assembly line of perils. It's hardly the first or last time Hollywood has plundered one of its own long-dormant properties, but it's also a reminder that not every resurrection has to feel like a desecration.

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'Tomb Raider'

In English and Cantonese with English subtitles

Rating: PG-13, for sequences of violence and action, and for some language

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: In general release

justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang ___

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