THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
PG-13, 109 mins.
2016, PG-13, 109 mins.
Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan / Margot Robbie as Jane Porter / Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams / Christoph Waltz as Captain Leon Rom / Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga
Directed by David Yates / Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer
I found myself asking three questions while screening THE LEGEND OF TARZAN :
Is Tarzan a relevant character anymore?
Is Tarzan a compelling character worthy of modern day movie
Is Tarzan a character that’s horribly antiquated and
outdated…perhaps even politically incorrect?
The short answers
to those questions are…no, no, and yes.
There have been
so many different permutations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic
turn-of-the-last-century pulp fiction creation over the decades in various
media forms that I’ve simply lost count.
He’s as recognizable as, say, Superman in pop culture, not to
mention that he has seen he light of day in everything from comic books,
radio programs, television, and, yes, movies.
I can certainly understand why a studio would want to capitalize on
the character’s instant brand name recognition with yet another feature
film to re-introduce him to a new generation of filmgoer, but Tarzan is a
somewhat problematic product of a distant bygone era.
Is there a place on the cinema screens of today for a
100-plus-year-old creation whose mythology is deeply rooted in
unmistakable and questionable “White Savior” iconography (more on that
it a bit)? There’s a strong
argument to be made in the yes category, albeit with some serious
modifications to the character. Alas,
the makers of this new age Tarzan film seem either reticent to address
such issues…or frankly don’t really know how to tackle them in a
THE LEGEND OF
TARZAN is not – both refreshingly and somewhat disappointingly – an origin film. It’s more of an adventure yarn featuring a well-established
and known Tarzan in this film’s universe.
The story achingly tries to cement itself in some solemn historical
truths of its era in the form of the King of Belgium colonizing the
African Congo in the late 1880’s and nearly bankrupting his nation in
the process of trying to pillage the region for all of its resources.
The king sends in one of his most ruthless and unscrupulous
businessmen in Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to negotiate with an African
Warlord (Djimon Hounsou) to secure the country’s vast diamond deposits.
The warlord wants one thing in return from Rom…Tarzan delivered to him, to which Rom eagerly agrees.
appears, has all but abandoned his primal jungle ways and now lives
the regal life as the third Lord of Greystoke, going by the name of John
Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard). Now a highly domesticated gentleman (he even sips his
afternoon tea with pinky in the customary upright position), John lives a
quiet life with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), a status that she
definitely appreciates, but that all changes when he is called by the
British and American governments to serve as a trade emissary to the Congo
to stop the Belgium King’s highly sketchy colonization plans.
The American president sends in one of his special diplomats,
George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to team up with John in his
return to the African wilds in hopes of securing it away from greedy
Belgium business imperatives. Initially,
John wants to have none of it all, but when Rom swoops in and kidnaps the
love of his life to use her as bait, that’s more than ample reason for John to lose his shirt, return to his
vine swinging roots, and save
the girl and Africa from tyranny.
As mentioned, the
whole notion of white colonial royalty – who was left for dead as a baby
and raised by African apes – returning to a country to rescue its
native black denizens from evil is…a bit of a hard pill to swallow from a
contemporary prerogative. Yes,
Tarzan was envisioned and created with an early 20th Century
mindset, but THE LEGEND OF TARZAN does very little to either subvert or
vehemently challenge said ideas. I
think that the writers (one of whom is inexplicably Craig Brewer, the
brilliant director of BLACK SNAKE MOAN and
HUSTLE AND FLOW) trying to
include an African America sidekick for Tarzan is their way of having us
overlook such obtrusive thematic headaches, but Williams is, quite frankly,
an weirdly anachronistic figure in this film.
Not only is it readily implausible that – considering the racially
torn times – that the commander-in-chief would send a diplomat of color
overseas, but Jackson also plays the role with such a 21st Century wisecracking
drollness that it almost appears that he walked off of a whole other
modern age film set and just arbitrarily showed up on this one.
good will and honorable intentions of Jackson’s casting aside, Tarzan
remains a white character of white elitist privilege that has to tame,
unite, and save a country populated mostly by black people (one sequence
alone has Skarsgard’s Ape Man mopping the floor with multiple
adversaries of color, a scene that's more distracting than purely exciting
or gripping). Perhaps
the bigger problem with THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is that, ultimately speaking,
it doesn’t really know what to do with Tarzan.
It’s not an origin story (although we get brief glimpses of his
back-story in flashbacks), so the film essentially reduces the character
to a fairly wooden and ill defined action figure that strikes dutiful
poses on cue…but that’s about it.
Tarzan here, on an emotional level, is pretty much a bland and
black slate. We learn very
little of what lurks beneath that miraculously and impressively sculpted
façade of his.
certainly looks the part and is a commanding physical presence in the
film, but he lacks charm and charisma here; he lets his physique do most
of the talking. His chemistry with Jane is also mournfully lacking and seems
manufactured at best; we never feel that these are two souls with an
indescribably loving bond and commitment together…other than the fact
that the screenplay tells us that they do.
Robbie seems strangely miscast here, which is regrettable seeing as
she’s churned out multiple performances as of late that suggests that
she’s a performer of rich range, but her Jane rarely evokes the aura of
a bona fide 19th Century woman (that, and for as much as the script thinks
it's cleverly mocking damsel in distress troupes by making her snarky and
feisty, Jane is still, when it boils right down to it…a damsel in
distress). And then there’s
Waltz – one of our greatest living actors – that’s playing yet
another one-note, soft spoken, mild mannered, but inevitably hot tempered
and lethal villain on pure autopilot.
When Waltz works with brilliant directors and writers (like Quentin
he’s pure cinemagic, but when he’s not the men behind the camera
rarely bring out the two-time Oscar winner’s A-game.
That’s not to say that THE LEGEND OF TARZAN doesn't have a competent director at the helm. The film was directed by David Yates, who knows his way around big budget tentpole franchises (he made the last several HARRY POTTER films), but here he rarely creates a Tarzan universe that feels tactile, credible, and inviting. The film was mostly shot on London sets, and it painfully shows. The overabundance of CG work (in creating the jungle animals and settings) ranges from mediocre to passable, with a bit more leaning towards the former (with a budget closing in on $200 million, the film’s money rarely looks like it's on screen and the ape effects hardly look as good as what Peter Jackson dreamt up in KING KONG from 11 years ago, not to mention that nearly every shot of Tarzan swinging through the jungle looks egregiously fake). THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a weird film. It takes itself too seriously and forgets to have fun with the material as an old fashioned adventure film, but when it tries to have fun the character’s inherent racial politics emerge to rear their ugly heads. Granted, this Tarzan outing is more lethargic, dull and lacking in genuine thrills than it is outright offensive.
When all is said and done, this Tarzan is not relevant nor compelling...and he certainly shows his age. However, when Skarsgard heroically flexes his unhealthily ripped and rain glistened pecs and abs to much of the adoring affection of female audience members...maybe that all doesn't matter.