Headache or hard-on?

Film - Steven Poole finds the latest blockbuster less stimulating than a shampoo commercial

The most disturbing moment in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider comes when Lara (Angelina Jolie) is given her next assignment. "Egypt?" she asks listlessly when surveying the papers. "It's all pyramids and sand . . ." It is a brave line near the beginning of a wannabe blockbuster: if Lara herself is bored of raiding tombs, why should we care?

Plot-wise, Tomb Raider is a rotting corpse sewn together from the gangrenous limbs of Indiana Jones films. There exists, if you will, a magic stone triangle that gives the holder power over time. An evil member of the Illuminati, Manfred Powell QC (Iain Glen), wants the triangle for nefarious purposes. Lara must stop him and his accomplice because she wants to use the triangle to get in touch with her dead dad, whom she sees in her dreams.

The kindest thing there is to say about this farrago is that Jolie never looks less than wonderful - whether in a fetchingly skintight lilac jumpsuit for those chilly Arctic mornings, in gauzy white linen pyjamas, or in the black hotpants-and-vest combo familiar from the Tomb Raider games. A stray strand of hair always escapes from her plaited ponytail to fall prettily over her face. She even makes a highly creditable stab at Gordonstoun vowels. Yet it is all to no avail. The director and co-screenwriter, Simon West, has concocted a film with such brutal contempt for its audience that it has less narrative interest than your average 30-second shampoo commercial. In fact, a teasing scene of Jolie in the shower actually is a shampoo commercial in everything but name. The risibly perfunctory way in which the plot hauls itself from one end of the world to another is a disgrace to the idea of sequential video-game "levels", which these days boast linking stories that are far more interesting.

The main problem is that Lara never appears to be in real danger. If there are no serious obstacles, there can be no true triumph. The Lara of the video games regularly dies before our eyes, jerking about underwater as she drowns, or collapsing, spurting blood, after falling into a spike-filled pit. In the film, however, Jolie is a priori invincible, no matter how many enemies are spraying bullets in her direction. Like Roger Moore's Bond, her only concession to displaying fear, satisfaction, or any other emotion, is one raised eyebrow.

The contrast between real people on celluloid and computer graphics is exacerbated here, because the graphical effects are so bizarrely bad: when a giant, six-armed, sword-wielding Vishnu comes to life in a Cambodian temple, we first think that we have seen this in an old Sinbad film, and then we realise that Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion creatures were far more believable as solid enemies.

It seems to have become de rigueur in recent Hollywood adventure films to construct action scenes entirely in the editing room. In Ridley Scott's Gladiator, for example, visceral excitement in the arena is increased by fast cutting between extreme close-ups and the stroboscopic effect of dropped frames and clanging steel. Lara Croft:Tomb Raider knows nothing but this kind of impressionistic approach to action, preferring to pull a fast one on the viewer's senses than convince us of a real narrative of combat.

Because Lara Croft the virtual character is essentially a dynamic personality - she rarely speaks, and instead expresses character by graceful and intelligent movement through spectacular spaces - the incoherence of the film's action sequences leaves an obvious, gaping void where Croft's real essence should be. Even the best sequence of the film, in which Jolie performs a kind of bungee-jumping ballet in her hall and is then surprised by gun-toting terrorists, fails to capitalise on its potential beauty.

Because the film has abandoned the notion of a Lara with brains as well as looks - the sledgehammer action never stops long enough to show Lara thinking her way out of a situation - the sole intriguing aspect of characterisation lies in the way Jolie occasionally gives a little pseudo-sexual moan (sometimes it's almost an "Aha!"; other times more of an "Mmmm"). The idea that a real-life Lara would suffer from a ruthless psychopathy, with violence as her only sexual outlet, follows a great lineage in post-Freudian cinema, but is sadly betrayed by the implication that she used to have a sexual relationship with her rival tomb raider.

At the end of the preview, a man behind me asked his friend: "So, headache or hard-on?" "Oh, hard-on, definitely," the second man enthused. As I considered the virtues of applying this scoring system to a film by, say, Hitchcock or Eisenstein, my temples started to throb, slowly.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (12) is on national release

Steven Poole's Trigger Happy: the inner life of video games is available in paperback from Fourth Estate (£7.99)