The reboot of TOMB RAIDER (2018) is positioned to be a global smash. And by global, I mean for America plus the nation that Hollywood is shamelessly courting for the past few years, the second largest movie market on the planet, the People’s Republic of China. Every filmmaker wants to make that crossover film because the payout potential is astronomical. TOMB RAIDER just might be what the film world has been waiting for – a border-crossing blockbuster for both sides of the Pacific. And the key factor just might lie in one actor, our January+February 2016 cover master, Daniel Wu.
The Legacy of Lara Croft
The popularity of the videogames and the previous films demonstrate that the Tomb Raider franchise has worldwide vitality. The 2001 original LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER starring Angelina Jolie earned over $274 million worldwide. It retains the box office record for the highest-grossing videogame adaption for the U.S. box office, and we’ve had plenty of videogame adaptations attempt to dethrone it since then. The Tomb Raider videogames have sold over 63 million copies worldwide. Lara Croft, the titular Tomb Raider herself, is the most recognizable video game character of them all, mostly thanks to Jolie’s signature portrayal.
However, the Tomb Raider franchise owes a debt to Steven Spielberg’s 1981 game changer, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. That film set the precedent for raiding trap-filled ancient tombs. The first Tomb Raider videogame came out fifteen years later in 1996. By then, the Indiana Jones franchise delivered two sequels and a TV show. Only the last film, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) was in Lara’s wake.
None of the Indiana Jones franchise films ever played in mainland Chinese theaters, but that doesn’t mean Indy had no sway over China. Jackie Chan launched his ARMOUR OF GOD franchise in 1986 and later confessed that its globe-trotting tomb-raiding hero Asian Hawk was an homage to Indiana Jones (as if that wasn’t obvious already). ARMOUR OF GOD II: OPERATION CONDOR came out in 1991, and in 2012, over two decades later, the franchise was rebooted with CHINESE ZODIAC.
Although Angelina Jolie was already an award-winning dramatic actress with three Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild awards and one Oscar to her credit before she took on the role, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER is still considered the film that propelled her to international stardom. Her iconic portrayal of Lara was celebrated as a symbol of female empowerment and savvy, as well as criticized for her bodacious sex object image. In 2001, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER film earned over $2 million in Chinese theaters; that seems paltry by today’s standards but was significant back then for China’s nascent international movie market. The 2003 sequel, LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, fell short of the original, earning less than $157 million worldwide, and was never shown in PRC theaters.
China Loves Tomb Raiding
Tomb Raiding films comprise a unique genre of their own in China. Perhaps this emerges from the discovery of one of China’s most glorious treasures, the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, guarded by Terracotta Warriors. While there were no trapdoors, no dart-flinging snares or giant steam-rolling boulders, this is arguably the world’s most awesome tomb. The Pyramids of Giza are more famous, but that was the tomb of several Kings and Queens. The Terracotta Warriors were made to protect one man, one emperor, the man whose name ‘Qin’ is from where we derive the word “China”. Built in 210-209 BCE, it contains a mindboggling collection of life-size individual terracotta statues, over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, along with many other non-military statues of officials, artists and performers. It was discovered in 1974 by some farmers who were digging a well and came up with the head of a statue instead. Today, the active archeological site is sheltered by a massive complex with walkways for tourists. It is a must-see location if ever you’re in Xian, one of the wonders of the ancient world. With a tomb like that, it’s not at all surprising that the Chinese people have a deep-seated romance with tombs filled with buried treasure.
There have been more Chinese Tomb Raiding films in the wake of Jackie’s first two ARMOUR OF GOD movies. Jackie’s THE MYTH (2005) really should’ve been another installment of the ARMOUR OF GOD franchise, but Jackie played a new character named unimaginatively ‘Jack’. Jack was essentially the same character as Asian Hawk, except SPOILER ALERT that he was a reincarnated general END SPOILER ALERT. There was also Hollywood’s THE MUMMY 3 (2008) with Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and China’s THE STORM WARRIORS (2009).
In recent years, China has delivered several more, such as WU DANG (2012), MOJIN: THE LOST LEGEND (2015), arguably Jackie’s DRAGON BLADE (2015), TIME RAIDERS (2016), and definitely Jackie’s KUNG FU YOGA (2017). And some others are coming soon including the crossover attempts 7 GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB starring Li Bingbing and Kellen Lutz and THE HANGING COFFIN being filmed in China by Hollywood’s Renny Harlin. These recent tomb raiding films enjoy the benefit of CGI so the tomb architecture is now absurd. Back in Indy’s day, or even Lara’s first two films, sets had to be built with only minimal glass painting enhancements. Now, the tombs are preposterously monstrous. The new TOMB RAIDER suffers from the same overdone CGI effects.
None of those other Tomb Raiding films have the globally recognizable Lara Croft. Alicia Vikander steps into the iconic role. Like Jolie, she has already garnered critical acclaim for her dramatic work – no Golden Globes yet (two nominations), one Screen Actors Guild award and one Oscar, plus numerous awards from many international critic associations. She’s not as in-your-face bodacious as Jolie or their busty videogame inspiration, but she trained rigorously in preparation and claims to have performed many of her own stunts and fight scenes. Vikander is strong in the film, well-developed, toned and agile. She runs ferociously and powerfully through obstacles, just as Lara should. The director wisely focuses a lot of close-ups of Vikander’s gorgeous face, which has the meticulous muscle control of an Oscar-winning actress. Through her expressive face, Vikander really sells the vertiginous leaps and the hanging from precarious precipices, which were surely shot with her wired in a safety harness within padded green rooms with the special effects added in post-production. The videogames were all about Lara running, jumping and dangling, so this is all very in character.
But back to that key actor factor, Daniel Wu.
The Warcraft Redemption
While LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER retains the title for the highest-grossing videogame adaption in the U.S., the global title goes to the 2016 film WARCRAFT. That’s right. That film cost $160 million to make and flopped hard in the U.S., earning only a mere $47 million. From that standpoint, it was a financial disaster and was quickly forgotten by most Americans. But when it comes to global matters, the U.S. doesn’t have the final say anymore. WARCRAFT earned over $433 million worldwide, over $213 million came from China. It was such a dramatic turn around that the industry coined the term ‘the Warcraft Redemption’ for films that flopped in America and then redeemed their box office in China. Although WARCRAFT was a Hollywood film with a Hollywood cast, it had one actor that China knew, and that was Daniel Wu.
Several other films have thrived due to the Warcraft Redemption, most notably EXPENDABLES 3. In fact, returns from the China box office saved that withering franchise. The TRANSFORMERS franchise began banking on China so heavily that when the last year’s last installment, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT only earned $250 million in China (nearly twice the U.S. take), it was still deemed a flop. Also last year, GEOSTORM earned $33 million in the U.S. and $65 million in China. And while the American posters featured the lead Gerard Butler, the Chinese posters spotlighted a different actor. And that too was Daniel Wu.
So casting Daniel Wu as Lu Ren in TOMB RAIDER has its international strategic aspect. Many Americans now recognize Daniel Wu for his standout work on AMC’s INTO THE BADLANDS (stay tuned for plenty of exclusive coverage when Season 3 premieres on April 22, 2018). He’s grown into a groundbreaking icon for diversity on the small screen. But in Asia, he is amongst the A list of leading men on the silver screen.
“I think the China market has become a very important source of revenue for U.S studios,” says Daniel Wu. “Chinese audiences have also become voracious consumers to big budget, effect-driven, action-based American films so it only makes sense to try and combine the two markets by adding actors like myself who have a large fan base in Chinese speaking Asia. That said this isn’t just a token role. Lu Ren is a three-dimensional character that is an important part of Lara’s journey which is why I decided to take on the role.”
True enough, Lu Ren is a major character, second only to Lara in his importance for the film. It will be interesting to see if the Chinese version expands Lu Ren’s role even more just like China got a different version of IRON MAN 3 (2013) where all the Asian characters got expanded roles in extra scenes never shown in the U.S. version. It’ll also be interesting to see if they convert the Cantonese dialog for Lu Ren and some other peripheral Chinese characters into Mandarin.
That Daniel Wu
As loyal readers know, Daniel Wu is a genuine practitioner of Chinese martial arts. However, while he has his share of fights in TOMB RAIDER, he doesn’t do any Kung Fu. “When I arrived on the set of TOMB RAIDER, the action coordinator wanted to know if I wanted to include any martial arts fighting in the action,” says Wu. “I gave him a definite no. I see myself as an actor who happens to know martial arts and not a martial arts actor. In fact, 90% of my roles have not involved martial arts. The character I play Lu Ren has probably been in his fair share of fights in his life but he is not a martial artist so it did not seem right to use martial arts for this role. That said, we did design some cool fights with cool moves without it being a Kung Fu fight.”
What’s more, another cast member from INTO THE BADLANDS joins Wu in TOMB RAIDER, the always witty Nick Frost. Frost has a small yet stand out role as Max, a mischievous pawn shop dealer. “I just got a call and they said ‘Do you want to come and do it?’ An uncredited cameo, which they then put into the trailer, which was a bit cheeky. But yeah, I’m in one scene. Two scenes. It was half a day, in and out, they let me wear my own clothes, all my own rings. I had the cool glasses on. It was just a fun day.” True to form, Frost deftly steals those two scenes he’s in. The two biggest bad boys from the Badlands rule in this reboot, and if it weren’t for Vikander’s fierce performance, they would have totally stolen the spotlight.
TOMB RAIDER is an origins tale, an introduction to Lara Croft for a new generation. Vikander’s take on Lara is grittier than Jolie’s, akin to Daniel Craig’s characterization of James Bond when compared to Roger Moore’s. Like so many other reboot origin stories, the first half of the film focuses on her becoming the Lara we all know and love, and it’s not until the end that her double-barreled persona really comes to fruition. In the era of ‘Female Strong’ films in the wake of last year’s WONDER WOMAN, critics are watching to see if Lara can dethrone BLACK PANTHER from its month-long reign as the box office champ. Vikander’s Lara is refreshingly independant. Where Jolie’s Lara always had love interests (coincidentally Daniel Craig in the first film and Gerard Butler in the second), Wu’s Lu Ren is a ‘buddy’ not a lover. There’s no stereotypical romance, no absurd “Oh James!” moment that completely emasculates (efemulates?) the heroine like with Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997). And while an argument could be made against Hollywood eschewing Asian male romantic leads, a final kiss between Lara and Lu Ren would have been awkward and undoing. It’s a Father/Daughter tale, a daughter in search of her father, and there, Jolie has the advantage as her Lara’s poppa was played by her real life dad, Jon Voight. And it feeds into the videogame as it echoes one of the games previous plotlines, as well as teases the launch of a new Lara Croft videogame, SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER, which releases later this year.
However, the discerning viewer is watching how Lara will fair in China. When it comes to the PRC market, this film had the potential to steal the treasure. It is clearly an attempt to relaunch the global cinematic franchise because the finale leaves Lara primed and ready for even more action in the sequel. As long as Wu and Frost are still on board for that, we are too.
Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM