Two years after looting the box office as if it were just another one of her tomb excursions… Lara Croft returns. Featuring a better story, better action, better drama, and dare I say, an even better looking Angelina (as if that were possible); “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” is a superior movie to its predecessor in almost every way possible.

“Lara Croft – Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” finds Lara taking on one of the greatest challenges of her life: recovering the mythical root of evil, Pandora’s Box. To do so will force Lara to trust an ex-lover, Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler), who also happens to be a dangerous mercenary with no apparent qualms over betraying anyone and everyone to get what he wants. Meanwhile, a power-hungry scientist (Ciaran Hinds) seeks the Box in hopes of unlocking all of its secrets with no regard for the danger it may pose to humanity. With time running out, Lara and Terry must travel far and wide to discover the Box’s location before something horrific happens.

While the original movie, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was an enjoyable guilty pleasure, the sequel is an all-out entertaining action adventure film. Taking all of the best components of the original and building a solid story upon them; this is one sequel that is not content with merely rehashing what’s come before.

The first time around the focus seemed to be solely on getting from one action set piece to another. In this outing, written by Dean Georgaris (“The Manchurian Candidate” remake) the focus is placed squarely on the plot, allowing it to propel the story forward rather than the action (of which there is still aplenty). The story is much more dramatic and intriguing; obviously, Georgaris’ story was crafted with more thought and care so that his film would be held in a higher regard by fans over the previous one. As with most sequels the goal should always be to outdo the previous film, clearly Georgaris and director Jan de Bont understood this as they definitely upped the ante on this movie in every respect.

The quest for Pandora’s Box was a much more interesting choice of quarry for Lara to pursue as opposed to The Triangle of Light. Even though the Illuminati’s plans for the Triangle would have been world threatening, they pale in comparison to the unparalleled evil that could be unleashed if Pandora’s Box were to be opened or entrusted into the wrong hands. While the search in the first film was full of adventure and took the audience to numerous locales around the globe, it never seemed to feel big enough in scope. While I can’t say with certainty that “Cradle of Life” goes to any more locations than its predecessor, it does however feel much more epic as the adventure is on a much grander scale than before. This is something that all adventure films such as this should strive for, and it was nice to see “Cradle of Life” delivered from start to finish.

Another area of this film that benefited greatly from the shift in focus was the lead character of Lara Croft. The original gave us only the smallest morsels of character development in regards to Lara and even less for her supporting characters. “Cradle of Life” provides a more emotionally developed heroine in Lara Croft than previously seen in her film or video games. For instance, we get to see her struggle with certain situations and/or people along her journey. Not everything with this mission was as black and white as it was before; thus, a more vulnerable side to the beloved video game icon was introduced to audiences. The result of this newfound vulnerability and/or humanity as it were, is a more fully realized character and one that the audience can relate to a little easier than before.

Another obvious weak spot in the previous film were the special effects, some of which were good while others not so much. For this sequel to succeed, the special effects were a major area in need of a significant overhaul. From a visual effects perspective, “Cradle of Life” benefited from having a director more familiar with the inclusion of CGI elements into action sequences. Jan de Bont’s previous experience directing such films as, “Twister” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control”, both films featuring plenty of graphically intensive visual effects sequences, made him far better suited to this film’s proceedings than the previous director [Simon West].

This time around, the effects were more realistic, visually exciting, and above all believable. Not having the effects in the movie be mostly science-fiction and/or fantasy related (as was the case in the original), allowed them to feel more natural within the scenes. Previously, the effects were far too obvious, which has a tendency to remove some audience members from the proceedings; however, the CGI employed here were more polished and even subtle at times. For adventure films (especially those in the vein of Indiana Jones) I think it’s a better choice to make the CGI appear indiscernible as to whether it’s practical or virtual; instead of being so blatantly in your face computer generated imagery that it detracts from the overall enjoyment of the film.

Now, let’s take a brief look at the acting in this movie. Leading the way once more is actress Angelina Jolie, obviously reprising her role as Lara Croft. This time around Angelina is fully in her element as Lara, completely confident and sure of herself and her skill sets. Along with this newfound confidence in the role came some surprising moments of vulnerability as Lara’s story arc carried much more depth to it than anything found in the previous film. Angelina, as she has shown in countless other films, excels in mining the emotional depths of a character, and apparently that holds true even if she is portraying a video game creation as well. That’s not to say that this role would have ever won her any critical acclaim. I was just pleased to see her take the role seriously as she played Lara with more complexity than perhaps other actresses would have if given the opportunity.

Joining Angelina on screen is Gerard Butler (“300”) as her former lover and betrayer of not only her, but their country as well. Gerard does well enough in the role and seems to really be enjoying himself as the supposedly cold, heartless mercenary. Of course, who could blame him? After all, most of his scenes are opposite Angelina Jolie, that’s enough for any man to enjoy showing up to work.

Actor Djimon Hounsou (“Constantine”) shows up in a very small role as a former associate of Lara’s living in Africa. It’s a shame that such a talented actor is so underrated and underutilized in not just this movie, but so many others that he’s been a part of. His character showed potential to be very interesting, but in the ten to fifteen minutes of screen time he received we never really got to see any of it come to fruition. His was a role that more could have and should have been done with, rather than giving his time to less interesting players over the two-hour duration.

As for the villain of the story, character actor Ciaran Hinds (“Race to Witch Mountain”) plays everything fairly one-note as the scientist seeking Pandora’s Box for his own malevolent needs. Personally, I was hoping that after the first film’s villain was portrayed so flatly and one-dimensional; perhaps the creative forces behind the sequel would attempt to go farther this time. Truthfully, a well-conceived villainous role would have definitely elevated the movie even more; especially if it’s apparent that he/she is an equal to the hero/heroine figure. In Ciaran’s case, his character never once seemed to be on equal footing with Lara or even Terry for that matter. Despite making almost every other facet of this movie better than the original, it’s disappointing that when it comes to the film’s primary antagonist that the movie settles for mediocrity once again.

Finally, “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” delivers to fans a Tomb Raider movie that is action-packed and very entertaining, without skimping so much on the story this time around. If you enjoyed the original film, or even if you didn’t, I can say with a relative degree of certainty that you will enjoy this one ever more.

“Lara Croft – Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” is rated PG-13 for violence, brief language, and brief sensuality.