Sequel turns Lara Croft into James Bond

A sequel to "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" had nowhere to go but up.

The 2001 summer blockbuster that served as a launching pad for this series was the cinematic equivalent of watching someone else play a video game for two hours. The acrobatic Lara (Angelina Jolie) spent her screen time trouncing legions of computer-generated nasties -- battles choreographed with as much soul as a Britney Spears soft drink commercial.

The crew behind "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" apparently learned a few lessons from that financially prosperous but critically reviled flick.

For the most part they've removed the video game aspects from the character -- ironic but effective. This time the espionage-heavy story is more grounded in reality. So instead of smirking through her voluptuous lips during the most treacherous of contests, the formerly invulnerable Lara often appears to be in actual danger.

Most importantly, the filmmakers pluck from elements that go into crafting a successful James Bond epic.

Like the 007 franchise, "Cradle of Life" is as much about location as it is momentum. Resembling a travelogue with gunfights, the pony-tailed adventurer journeys from Santorini to Shanghai to Mount Kilimanjaro. And like Bond she employs the same agreeably smug attitude throughout her fish-out-of-water experiences.

In this installment, Lara comes across a relic from Alexander the Great's reign that gives a cryptic clue to the location of Pandora's Box.

"Everything lost is meant to be found," she says, despite the potential global consequences of the find.

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Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life **

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Acrobatic Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) is less of a video game come-to-life and more of a James Bond knockoff in this improved sequel over the abysmal original. Director Jan de Bont ("Speed") keeps the pace of this project at a brisk clip, giving the audience little time to scrutinize holes in the goofy plot involving a scheme to unleash Pandora's Box.

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After this prize is stolen from her by the Chinese syndicate, Lara recruits ex-secret agent Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), who also happens to be her ex-lover, to help retrieve it. Meanwhile, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist (Alan Rickman look-alike Ciarán Hinds) and his deadly henchman (Michael Rooker look-alike Til Schweiger) hope to use the fabled artifact as the ultimate weapon of bioterrorism.

In his fifth film as director, Jan de Bont ("Twister") keeps the pace at a brisk clip, giving the audience little time to scrutinize holes in the goofy plot.

Luckily, the rapport between Lara and Terry is strong enough to tie these episodic moments together. Combative, sexy and ambiguous, the pair's relationship adds an ingredient that was absent from the first picture.

If only the movie had kept with its Bond motif throughout the whole endeavor, it could have remained a genial, summer no-brainer a la "2 Fast 2 Furious" or "The Italian Job." Instead, "Cradle of Life" turns into the same Dungeons & Dragons-style crapola as the original when the climax becomes a supernatural skirmish between Lara, the bad guys and "shadow warriors" that inhabit an African forest.

The actual exotic backdrops favored throughout the film make the phony sets in this finale all the more distracting. Worse, the shadow warriors -- ferocious CGI-spawned monsters -- seem to be carried over from de Bont's abysmal remake of "The Haunting."

No explanation is given how or why these ogres were created to guard this region or if they're even necessary, since whoever possesses the relic can defeat them. But you can't find the box they are guarding unless you have the relic to begin with. So does that mean they only kill those who CAN'T find what they're protecting?

There will be little argument that "Cradle of Life" is a much-improved sequel over its predecessor. Regrettably, it comes on the heels of a movie that should have never been made in the first place.

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