Mortal Kombat. Street Fighter. Super Mario Bros. Wing Commander. Dungeons & Dragons. Heck, even Pokemon. The mere mention of those video and board game titles may bring fond memories to those who grew up playing them and/or still love to do so. Unfortunately, they also either elicit indifference in moviegoers who never had any intention of seeing them made into movies, or bad memories from those who did after being subjected to the failed and usually awful cinematic adaptations of them.
No matter how much money or special effects are poured into such films, their batting average in artistic terms is a big fat zero, with only a few of them faring any better at the box office. The reasons for that, of course, are many, ranging from bad writing, directing and acting to simply being an ill-conceived notion from the get-go.
The latter stems from the fact that filmmakers and those who finance such projects have yet to get it through their thick heads that those games are popular because they involve the player on a proactive and interactive basis, something regular movies can't offer to a theater-based audience. By turning the gamers and others into passive viewers, the fun of the game evaporates. When coupled with mediocre, poor or downright atrocious filmmaking, the results - to no one's surprise - are disastrous.
All of which leads us to the release of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," the latest such film that turns out to be yet another failed, big budget effort of capitalizing on the popularity of video games. Seemingly inspired by the Indiana Jones films, the game debuted in 1996 and featured an unusual lead character for a video game - a spunky, gun-toting, bosomy heroine who could kick video butt along with the best of her silicone-based brethren.
Not surprisingly, the game became a huge hit with girls who finally had an action-based female character they could control and emulate, while boys obviously lusted - secretly or not - after this hot video babe. Even less surprisingly, Hollywood decided to do a little raiding of its own, nabbing rights to this film and hoping to lure those same fans into the theaters.
Yet, the producers and filmmakers behind this effort faced the daunting task - just like those who adapt comic books or novels - in finding just the right person to play the part and appease fans' expectations. If there's one good thing to say about this film, it's that the filmmakers hit casting pay dirt by lobbying for and eventually signing actress Angelina Jolie ("Girl, Interrupted," "Gone in 60 Seconds") to embody Lara Croft.
Unfortunately, casting of the lead character alone doesn't ensure anything (think of Robin Williams as Popeye) and in the end, the film's many bad things outweigh and overshadow that lone good one. For starters, unlike comic books, TV shows and novels that are adapted for the silver screen, most video games have little in the way of character or story depth.
Accordingly, screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman -- who are both making their debut and work from a story by Sara. B. Cooper (TV's "The X-Files"), Mike Werb ("Face/Off") and Michael Colleary ("Face/Off") - had to come up not only with a basic A to Z plot, but also the back-story leading up to it. Quite frankly, they did a lousy job of both.
Perhaps fans of the game will better understand the characters and what ultimately substitutes as a decent story, but for the rest of us, the details are hazy at best when not being utterly ridiculous. Beyond the goofy and decidedly less than engaging story of the protagonist's late father informing her - through carefully hidden clues - about the usual threat to all of mankind from a megalomaniacal villain who's about to obtain ultimate power that only she can stop - we know next to nothing about her (or why her father didn't just destroy, rather than hide, a crucial link to that power).
Sure, she can kick some booty, has a killer body and misses her dad, but who is she, what does she do, and why is she living a "Batman" style life? Although a few random lines of dialogue attempt to answer some of that, the bevy of writers were apparently more concerned with raiding other films for material than in crafting an original and well-told one.
Beyond the obvious "Batman" parallel (girl orphaned at young age grows up in a huge mansion with a butler and lots of high-tech gadgets she uses to fight the bad guys), there's the blatant rip-off -- in more ways than one -- of the archaeologically based Indiana Jones films. Throw in scenes directly lifted from or inspired by pictures such as "The Mummy," "The Fugitive," "Event Horizon" and plenty of others, and the result is a film that's most notable for reminding viewers of how such scenes were better in the original films. One of the more amazing occurrences is when Lara stands at the edge of a huge waterfall with a gun on her and decides to jump to her freedom rather than be captured, a la Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive."
Of course, the other thing (or things, to be accurate) that may draw the viewer's eye are Jolie's obviously accentuated breasts that have been enhanced to better emulate those displayed by her video game counterpart. Anyone who's seen the actress's other work knows she doesn't need such an enhancement, and it's ridiculous when her character rides on a dog sled through the bitter cold and snow with her coat open (so we can clearly seen her chest) when the men around her are all bundled up.
The big problem is that director Simon West ("The General's Daughter," "Con Air") doesn't know how to handle Jolie's breasts, all of the lifted material, or the overall film for that matter. Not content with simply allowing the plot to be loose and inexplicable, West apparently decided there wasn't any need for story momentum, presumably figuring the action could carry the picture.
While a great deal of time, effort and money obviously went into the elaborate fight sequences, they alone can't compensate for the lousy story and surprisingly aren't particularly thrilling or engaging. When the film's big opening set piece is a letdown - in this case, watching Lara battle some robotic creature - it quickly becomes apparent that we're in for a long and painful ride and that's certainly the case here.
Although Jolie seems to fit the bill near perfectly in physically portraying the video game heroine - what with her toned bod, large bosom and lusty/sweaty sneer - the absence of any sort of palatable character depth, explanation or growth prevents the viewer from knowing and thus caring about her character. While she's credible doing the stunt work - even if some of the staging is hokey when not ridiculous - that's about all Jolie can bring to the thinly written role.
After that, it's mostly downhill considering the other performances. Other than Chris Barrie who makes his feature film debut and gets in a few amusing moments as the protective butler, Iain Glen ("Mountains of the Moon," "Gorillas in the Mist") and Daniel Craig ("Elizabeth," "I Dreamed of Africa") are completely flat as the one-dimensional villains and Noah Taylor ("Almost Famous," "Shine") can't do much with his limited techno guru part.
Even the much-heralded reunion of the real-life father daughter team of Jon Voight ("Pearl Harbor," "Anaconda") and Angelina Jolie is a let down. That's not only because of a lack of screen time, but also because their reunion is a cheap imitation of a far superior, similar scene in "Contact."
To make matters worse, the film sports an absolutely awful ending lifted from "Lethal Weapon" and a gazillion other films where the hero and villain lay down their weapons and fight each other with blows that individually would incapacitate even the toughest athlete or fighter, but collectively have a hard time taking out the Energizer Bunny/Timex Watch hybrids here.
I suppose it's a fitting finale considering everything that leads up to it, but one can only hope that viewers will stay away from dreck like this and thus cause a big "Game Over" notice to flash on the screen as a warning for any future such video game adaptations. "Lara Croft: Film Raider," uh, I mean "Tomb Raider" rates as just a 2.5 out of 10.