In my opinion, this movie is much better than the first Tomb Raider film. The first film was entertaining, make no mistake, but it still had too much of a comic book feel and 'Angelina Jolie' (qv) had not yet gotten a firm grasp of the Lara Croft role. In Cradle of Life, both Lara and Jolie show newfound maturation, and this makes her (both actress and fictional character) much more interesting to watch. Heck, even Jolie's faux British accent is more convincing the second time around. I was one of the many who protested when she was cast in the role; the first film left be unconvinced, but she finally won me over in her second outing.
The story is also more interesting in the second film, with the whole Pandora's Box angle being something more worthy of Tomb Raider than the tired old "conspiracy out to take over the world" plot of the first film.
There are some aspects of the second film that I didn't care for as much. Lara, for one thing, is far more deadlier this second time around and at one point seriously considers gunning down a man in cold blood. This type of behavior is more fitting for James Bond than Lady Lara Croft. But once I got used to the idea of Lara Croft 007, I didn't mind it so much. (Indeed, if Hollywood ever follows through with it's long-threatened female Bond film, they could do far worse than get Angelina Jolie for the role of Jane(?) Bond.)
What appealed to me in Cradle of Life is how familiar Lara, her background, and her supporting characters have become with only one previous film under their belts. No time is spent explaining who she is and why she lives in such a huge mansion (which sadly appears only briefly). This level of familiarity, of character comfort, is something I've only ever seen once before -- in the Bond series.
Cradle of Life also features some most impressive set pieces that may not necessarily advance the story, but are great to watch, such as a zoom in from outer space on Lara riding a motorcycle, an incredible zoom-in shot THROUGH the window of Croft Manor, and a great scene of Lara shooting at targets while riding a horse -- sidesaddle!
Sadly, the critical and box office failure of Cradle of Life probably guarantees no further entries in the series, and even if it does continue, Jolie looks ready to follow Audrey Hepburn's lead and put acting on the back burner in favor of humanitarian work so the role will probably go to another (possibly less talented) actress. If this turns out to be the case, I believe the Lara Croft series looks set to be remembered as fondly as the Derek Flint films of the 1960s.
Anyone who has been scared away by the bad reviews could do worse than to rent a copy from their local video store and check it out. You might be surprised at how much fun the movie is.