ANY REMAKE OF Tarzan, the legendary ape man unleashed into the world in 1912, has to deal with the awkward politics of a superhuman white man saving the lives of (weaker) black men. Edgar Rice Burrough’s assumptions of white (moral, intellectual, physical) superiority is a heavy burden for any modern film-maker and any (non-racist redneck) audience to stomach. The writers of this latest incarnation of the lord of the jungle (Adam Cozad of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Craig Brewer of Black Snake Moon) are all too aware of this; they dance through hoops to avoid any charge of even unconscious racism or neo-Colonial sympathy.
And they accomplish the feat with grace and style. Turns out Jane (Margot Robbie) was also brought up in Africa (daughter of missionaries) and so has a deep affinity for the people and the land, quite independent of Tarzan. She can’t quite leap from vine to vine, but, if only in her displays of animal passion, is a fitting mate to her jungle lord.
The story of The Legend of Tarzan centers around the imminent enslavement of the Congolese by the heinous Belgian King Leopold and his local man of business, Leon Rom (Christopher Waltz reprising his villainous Nazi character from Inglorious Basterds). Rom (like Leopold) was an actual person. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), now married to Jane and happily living in aristocratic splendor as Lord and Lady Greystoke, is tempted back into the jungles by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), another real life person, whose mission it is to root out slavery everywhere and for whom Tarzan would be an extraordinary ally.
They return to an Edenic setting: old friends, the undisturbed home where their romance blossomed and the lush, animal-dense beauty of central Africa. The bliss is shattered by Rom and his troupe of ruthless mercenaries who must capture Tarzan in return for a king’s ransom of diamonds guarded by one Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) a vengeful tribal King (The result of ancient bad blood after Tarzan, defending his ape ‘mother’, killed his son).
And when all hell breaks loose, the movie’s gentle pace swings into high gear. Jane has been captured as bait for Tarzan. And absolutely nothing and no one, not even an entire battle-ready tribe will stop her man getting to her.
It’s pretty exciting seeing Tarzan swinging through the trees, hearing his famous battle cry and following stampeding herds of wildebeest as they demolish the fortressed might of the Belgians. The good guys win (surprise surprise!) and the hissingly nasty Ron gets a jaw chomping cumuppance.
As the story’s moral conscience (and through whose startled eyes we see much of the incredible action) Samuel L Jackson delivers his usual compelling, if thankfully subdued, presence. Director David Yates (Lots of the Harry Potter movies) handles this story of George Washington Williams (who I’d never heard of before, and who could easily overshadow Tarzan) with a delicate touch. It’s a story that deserves its own, a less trivial telling.
Yates’ vine knotted Africa with its growl of menacing apes and thunder of war painted warriors is a visual delight. There’s never any real sense that Tarzan could possibly be in danger and his fight scenes feel a bit paint by numbers, but no matter, they’re engaging enough.
Margo Robbie (it was Jane who, truth be told, really drew me to the movie) is a convincingly badass heroine. It was good of Tarzan to rescue her, but, I suspect, given enough time, she’d have rescued herself.
The weak link is Tarzan. He certainly looks great, but Skarsgard, who tries for a brooding, introspective Tarzan never quite manages to convince either as a gentleman repressing the animal within or as an animal barely restrained by his gentlemanliness. He was better as a broodingly nasty vampire in True Blood. And, since the story hangs on his finely sculpted pecs, his weakness is almost the film’s undoing
The writing also is shoddy. The Legend of Tarzan has a neatly worked out story line, but it’s lazy writing: various themes about slavery, colonialism, Leopold’s massacre of elephants, friendship, honor etc are scattered here and there without a unifying idea. Too bad. It allowed a wonderfully researched story to end up as a movie that’s pleasant, eye-candy but just another forgettable entry into the canon of Tarzan
The Legend of Tarzan: Dir: David Yates. With: Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Waltz, Samuel. L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbet. Writers: Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Cinematographer: Henry Braham (The Golden Compass). Production Designer: Stuart Craig (Harry Potter’s)