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In a season dominated by figures of fantasy, there is one heroine who keeps at least one foot firmly on the ground: Lara Croft. Eleanor Singer looks at the making of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.

“Angelina could get serious employment as a stunt performer,” declares Simon Crane, second-unit director and stunt co-ordinator on Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the second film to be based on the phenomenally successful computer game. Crane has worked on films like The World Is Not Enough, Saving Private Ryan and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines - not to mention the original Lara Croft movie, which came out two years ago and went on to take nearly US$300 million worldwide - so obviously he knows what he’s talking about. “Angelina’s extremely fit,” he adds, “and, because she wanted to do just about everything, sometimes we had to rein her back.”

"The action is over the top...but the character is reassuringly real"

Which is the point at which you realise, not so much that this is only a film - all films are, when you come down to it, “only a film” - but that it is a flesh-and-blood actress who is embodying a character originally created to do the impossible at the flick of a few computer keys or the twitch of a joystick. And the striking thing about the first movie is the extent to which it stays grounded in the character of Lara. The action is over the top, in other words, but the character is reassuringly real.

Sure, Lara does breathtaking stunts in the first film - on the swinging beam in the Cambodian temple; aboard the spinning mechanism during the climactic scenes at the frozen lake. But it is a tribute to Jolie’s performance that you never lose sight of the human being. She doesn’t don a spider suit or grow 20-foot tall and turn green: for all the generic costumes and impressive array of weapons strapped to every limb, she is still Lord Croft’s orphaned daughter with a lot of vulnerability in her emotional baggage.

The vulnerability crops up again in the new movie and it has to do with the male star, Gerard Butler, who starred in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 and is soon to play the romantic lead in the movie of The Phantom of the Opera. He plays a rogue agent called Terry Sheridan, who is sprung from a jail somewhere in Kazakhstan to lead Lara to the film’s real villain, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who has gone to the bad side and is now bent on world domination.

“Sheridan has a romantic history with Lara,” says Butler, “and, because of that intimate connection, he complicates her life. He’s a dangerous, unpredictable man capable of a lot of damage, and the unmistakable chemistry he has with Lara makes her vulnerable. The whole time they’re together, the audience wonders if he will double-cross her. His history leads you to suspect he will, but his fiery connection with Lara makes you want to believe he won’t.”

"a tremendously interesting franchise"

If any of this evokes echoes of Alex, the role played by Daniel Craig in the first film, that is not by chance: Cradle of Life has most of the elements of the initial Tomb Raider film - exotic locations, a plot centred around ancient forces that can destroy the world, death-defying stunts in striking settings - but it has them on a more lavish and more spectacular scale.

“Tomb Raider is a tremendously interesting franchise,” says producer Lloyd Levin, who teams up once again with Die Hard veteran Lawrence Gordon on the new film. “It embraces both fantasy and reality-based adventure, and that’s a huge palette from which to work. We wanted to emphasise and build on what makes Lara Croft and Tomb Raider special, and we found that what really worked in the first film was obviously Angelina, so we set out to create a story that gave her more dimension and greater challenges to face.

“We also found that the global elements were very strong, as was the fact that Lara has one foot in ancient history and mythology, and the other foot in a very real world full of cutting-edge technology. So we pushed those elements in the film as well.”

Lara’s quest this time is the ‘Pandora’s Box’ of ancient myth - something that contains an unspeakable evil which, once unleashed, will destroy the world. The box is hidden in an area of Africa called the ‘Cradle of Life’, and Lara has to get to it before the maniacal Dr Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds, seen most recently in Road to Perdition and The Sum of All Fears), who - like Iain Glen’s Manfred Powell in the first film - is intent on harnessing its power for his own selfish interests. With Sheridan as her guide, Lara sets out to head off Dr Reiss, aided, as before, by the geekish duo of Bryce (Noah Taylor) and Hillary (Christopher Barrie), as well as old college chum Kosa (Djimon Hounsou).

"to bat for the forces of darkness"

Coming in to bat for the forces of darkness, meanwhile, are Hong Kong martial arts star Simon Yam as Chen Lo, leader of the Shay-Ling Bandits; and Reiss’ ruthless henchman Sean, played by German star Til Schweiger, doubtless in recognition of the fact that Germany was one of the territories in which the original film performed most strongly (it sold nearly two and half million tickets there).

The new movie took six months to shoot, and criss-crossed the globe every bit as assiduously as the first film, with director Jan De Bont (Speed, Twister), company and crew travelling to the Greek islands, Kenya, Tanzania, Hong Kong, China and Wales (standing in for a mountainous region of China), before settling into several months of set work at Pinewood Studios outside London. And, where the first entry made history by being able to film inside the temple complex at Angkor Vat in Cambodia, Cradle of Life did the same by shooting in Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park.

The most striking location of all this time around was Hong Kong’s unfinished International Financial Center Tower, which is the third tallest building in the world. The IFC’s owners were initially reluctant to let the Tomb Raider company use the Tower - not surprisingly, when you realise what they wanted to do was jump and free fall from the 84th floor.

"an amazing sight to see"

“What was most difficult was having two people, wearing special ‘wing’ suits, jump or ‘fly’ together from about 1,000 feet up, then open their parachutes just 200 feet from the ground,” says Crane. “We also needed a third person to fly with them to do the filming and, after a lot of searching, I came across this wonderful Swedish team who could perform in extremely close formation. It was an amazing sight to see but your heart was in your mouth watching them.” The stunt ends with Lara and Sheridan landing on the deck of a freighter in Hong Kong Harbour.

This, of course, was one stunt that Jolie did not do herself. But Crane admits that, having watched her simultaneously handle a high-powered motorbike and a pair of machine pistols in the first film, he was determined to set her some more demanding challenges in the second. “For example,” he says, “while Angelina has ridden a horse before, we asked her to do it side-saddle this time. And while she rode along, we had her firing a fairly heavy gun, spinning the weapon around, reloading, then firing again!”

Not surprisingly, preparing for the role required Jolie to go through strenuous gymnastics, weight-lifting, bungie-jumping, motorcycling, kick-boxing, martial arts, weaponry and general fitness training - plus, for a bit of light relief, yoga. 

“Playing Lara Croft is one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever undertaken,” admits the actress. “I thought at some point, with all the working out, I’d eventually get to where I felt every inch the action hero. But the truth is, it’s hard to snap into ‘Lara’ mode every day, ready to take on the world.”

Nonetheless, she recognises the appeal of the character, and that’s because Lara is very much her own woman. “Lara is not a stereotype in any way, shape or form,” says Jolie. “She has some mystery about her, and she’s not all wrapped up in herself like a lot of heroines.”

"vital, passionate and dynamic"

Then, of course, there is the aspect of her character which made Jolie such ideal casting but which she, understandably, cannot emphasise. Let’s leave it to Ciarán Hinds, the actor who plays the villain.

“If my character is ice-cold, ruthless and calculating,” he says, “her character is vital, passionate and dynamic - all qualities Angelina has herself. It’s a given she always looks stunning. But, in one scene, when she loomed at me out of the darkness, her beauty actually took my breath away…”

Published October 2, 2003

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