Benjamin Svetkey
July 18, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There are, it turns out, several ways to remove a tattoo. You can have it sanded off with a surgical power tool called a dermatome. Or you can try a cut-and-paste procedure involving multiple excision and skin graft operations. But for those really stubborn stains — oh, say, your ex-husband’s name inscribed onto your arm in big black bold letters — there’s only one way to go: You have to blast it away with a high-energy pulse laser.

”The worst part is the smell,” says Angelina Jolie, gently rubbing the spot on her muscle where the last remnant of her two-year marriage to actor Billy Bob Thornton has already been partially scorched away. ”Everybody has to wear a surgical mask — the doctor, the nurse, the patient — because of the smell of burning flesh. I’ve had five treatments so far and have a few more to go. It doesn’t hurt much more than getting the tattoo in the first place,” she insists. ”It just hurts in a totally different sort of way.”

After the panoply of pain she’s been through, Jolie, 28, could probably compile a compendium on the subject, illustrated and indexed. Last summer’s sudden split from the man whose blood she once adoringly wore in a pendant around her neck was hardly the only public trauma. (”I threw it away,” she answers coolly when asked about the plasma; Thornton reportedly tossed his vial of her blood into a fire.) There was also a falling-out with her father, actor Jon Voight, after he appeared on Access Hollywood and tearfully begged his daughter to ”get help” for her ”serious symptoms of real problems, real illness.” Jolie answered her dad’s pleas by having his name removed from her life, this time by lawyers instead of dermatologists (she legally dropped Voight as her surname). And if all that wasn’t enough, there was the panning of her biggest starring vehicle to date, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, one of the most critically piled-on action films of 2001. That must have stung too.

And yet, here she is, gamely strapping on a pair of Lara’s party-size pistols for another go as the bodacious archaeologist-adventurer in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the $100 million-plus sequel that opens in more than 3,000 theaters on July 25. ”This one is better,” she earnestly promises. ”It took us a while to figure things out — just figuring out how to use Lara’s guns in the first one took us months. But this one has more action and the character is a lot more developed. It’s smarter and sexier and a bit darker. The fans should be happier this time.”

The movie could make Paramount happy easily enough, just by repeating the original’s performance at the box office. Despite its withering notices, that first Tomb Raider ended up as one of the studio’s biggest grossers, earning $275 million worldwide. But whether the sequel will manage to put a smile on Jolie’s face is a more interesting question: Since making the original Raider, her private peccadilloes have proven a lot more dramatic than anything she’s put on film. Her attempt to go blond and bubbly with Edward Burns in Life or Something Like It fizzled badly (grossing less than $15 million), and her stab at a spicy Cuban romance with Antonio Banderas in Original Sin didn’t turn out much hotter (a mere $16.5 million). Add those woes to the list of Jolie’s recent pains, and it becomes even harder to see her getting happy.

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