THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
BY NATHAN EVANS
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan is a silly idea. Though I’m sure it was a different story at the time the original tales were written. The world was a much more mysterious place and information was harder to distribute, so many of the more ridiculous/racist/sexist elements that makeup a Tarzan tale were more believable or at least didn’t require as much of a suspension of disbelief. This dated aspect of the classic character makes it extremely difficult to make a successful modern day adaptation of the material that can be taken seriously. Faced with this challenge, ’Harry Potter: and the Deathly Hallows’ director David Yates’ take on the literary staple is almost successful.
At first ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ doesn’t present itself as an origin story, which, in a world full of ‘Batman Begins’ knockoffs and unnecessary reboots that repeat familiar tales ad nauseam, was refreshing. Rather than a simple savage, Tarzan (portrayed by ‘True Blood’s’ Alexander Skarsgard) is a dignified British gentlemen, Lord Greystoke or John Clayton: an intelligent and respected celebrity with a mysterious past that provides fertile ground for the exaggerated imaginings of children all over England. After he receives an invitation from King Leopold, a Belgian monarch claiming ownership over much of the Congo, to visit in what will basically be a publicity tour to legitimize his hold over the land, Clayton finds himself slowly drawn back to his old stomping grounds; his spirited wife Jane Clayton, played with gusto by Margot Robbie, in tow. Before the invitation can be officially accepted, Clayton is warned by American adventurer George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) that there might be a more sinister intention behind Leopold’s request. Enter Leopold’s right hand man Leon Rom (portrayed by Christoph Waltz), who has made a pact with the warlord of a native tribe, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou), to deliver the warrior known as Tarzan in exchange for a set of fabled diamonds that will bring Leopold and his claim back from the brink of bankruptcy.
What ensues is a pretty straightforward action/adventure in which our hero attempts to expose the villains, save his homeland, and retrieve his wife who has inevitably been kidnapped by the bad guys; and, of course, unfortunately for the bad guys, is far more capable than your average woman of the time is thought to be.
Where ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ excels is with its cast. Alexander Skarsgard is appropriately stoic as Tarzan. He balances all aspects of the character like a professional, believably transitioning our protagonist from respected aristocrat to savage jungle warrior. Samuel L. Jackson continues to satisfy, bringing his usual swagger and low-key comedic charms to Williams; and Margot Robbie, as always, draws the eye; satisfyingly filling the archetype of the strong heroine that don’t need no man to save the day.
Unfortunately the film runs into trouble with its villain. So much of ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ fits into the trod and true mold of the adventure serial, and with any familiar story, there are archetypes that need to be filled. Here it’s as if Yates and the screenwriters don’t know which role Waltz’s Rom is supposed to occupy. Is he the weasel/right hand man to the true villain or are we supposed take him as the big bad that should be feared? Ultimately the film never comes up with a clear answer, leaving us with a villain that never truly poses a threat to the formidable Tarzan. This is a grievous misstep that wastes the talents of Waltz who at this point has made it his business to be the go-to antagonist for genre films.
The film further missteps when it doubles back and does recount Tarzan’s origins through a series of flashbacks. All the work the first hour of the film puts in to establish a serious, gritty tone, is undermined when the aforementioned sillier elements begin to bleed through. These issues are further exacerbated through some truly awkward comedic beats and hit-or-miss dialogue. Most notably, Robbie is saddled with several clunky chunks of exposition. She handles them ably, but the writing, script mechanics, and the occasional moment of disjointed editing dilute, not only her, but the entire film’s efforts.
Another troubling aspect is that the film is missing any sense of a memorable set piece. The action we do witness shows potential, but it’s almost as if Yates cuts around it. Tarzan’s lithe movements through the jungle promise the visual flair of the web swinging scenes from Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, but we only ever catch glimpses of it.
The same is true for a lot of the fight scenes. When we finally do come to what should be a climactic battle sequence, it fizzles out with only a few lines of rushed dialogue. Between this film and ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice’ I’m convinced that this is the year of just talking things out between the protagonist and antagonist in action films.
‘The Legend of Tarzan’ is a film that works more on its potential than on the actual film that was produced. There’s a lot to like here, but for every moment that works, there’s another moment on its heels that serves to undermine it. In no way is the film a lost cause, but it’s difficult to get lost in it when there’s always something pulling you out. Like many of the blockbusters we’ve seen this year, ’The Legend of Tarzan’ does leave itself open enough for a sequel, unlike most of them, I’m actually intrigued to see where this could go; preferably in the hands of a more capable director.
RATING: 3 OUT OF 5