'The Legend of Tarzan'
It’s hard to imagine that anyone out there was really begging for a new Tarzan movie. The jungle hero raised by apes lost his cultural cachet long ago, even with a Disney cartoon to help stretch out the legacy. However, blockbusters are dictated by brand names now and the name Tarzan resonates even with viewers who never read a word of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original stories.
The Tarzan story is also a big thumping adventure tale that’s never gotten the CGI blockbuster treatment. It makes sense that this movie was made, and also kind of makes sense that it’s rather dull and forgettable. We’ve been here before and it’s been a while since it had much entertainment value. Director David Yates (the man behind the final four ‘Harry Potter’ pictures) tries admirably to add dramatic weight and digital scale to the old hero, but it doesn’t add up to much. A somber take on Tarzan wasn’t exactly something the world desperately needed. This would-be franchise kickstarter will likely meet the same obscure fate as the last handful of attempts to reboot the pulp legend.
Thankfully, at least the film isn’t a Tarzan origin story even if that plotline is sprinkled throughout. We first meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) in England where he’s been living in luxury with Jane (Margot Robbie). It’s been a while since the guy lived in the jungle and he now enjoys the fruits of celebrity. But Tarzan has an itch to get back to where he came from (ditto audiences). He reluctantly accepts when he’s invited to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary for England. Unfortunately, all is not what it seems. Tarzan may set off on a quest (alongside Samuel L. Jackson as a fictionalized George Washington Williams) to help his country, but he gets caught up in a plot orchestrated by dastardly villain Captain Rom (Christoph Waltz). The baddie baits Tarzan with proof of a slave trade, but really just plans to kidnap and kill him for diamonds. Sadly for him, Rom forgot that this guy is an action hero more than happy to prove his chops by beating up evildoers in white suits.
While it’s nice that ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ attempts to put the hero into a new adventure with some heady political undertones that theoretically aim the movie at adults, the new narrative is a bit of a convoluted mess. It’s tough to keep track of exactly what screenwriters Adam Cozar and Craig Brewer are trying to say with their swell of political intrigue, especially in a movie sold on the promise of watching a shirtless Alexander Skarsgård (is there any other kind?) engage in rounds of smashy-smashy. More often than not, the needlessly overwrought narrative feels like a distraction, especially whenever it dips into origin tale flashbacks that were likely tagged on by a desperate studio. (That footage has oddly been the center of the ad campaign even though it doesn’t make up much of the movie.) It also doesn’t help that Skarsgård isn’t a particularly charismatic lead. He’s certainly a physical specimen who can pull off all the action scenes against CGI animals and disposable extras with ease, but his performance is mostly a series of scowls with the occasional scream. Even though seemingly every character on screen is in awe of Tarzan, viewers likely won’t be quite so enthusiastic.
Still, there are some highlights around the edges. Christoph Waltz is always a watchable presence, even as an underwritten moustache-twirling villain. The same can be said for Margot Robbie and Samuel Jackson, who have such grace and personality as performers that they elevate their forgettable characters. With a handful of ‘Harry Potter’ movies already under his belt, David Yates knows how to stage a massive effects and action sequence, and throws some good ones in here. The trouble is that the filmmaker is also determined to create dreary and dark blockbusters. That worked for the backend ‘Potter’ pictures that needed such a tone, but frequently sucks the life out of the old-timey adventure inherent in Tarzan.
The desperate need to treat this pulp material seriously and fill it with a Nolan-esque sense of political purpose feels forced and unnecessary. Viewers are stuck with a dreary two-hour adventure that never quite delivers the thoughtful subtext it desperately promises. ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ is a big and expensive movie made with vast resources that aren’t wasted on the big screen. But it just isn’t much fun, nor does it have a dramatic backbone strong enough to justify all the brooding. It’s forgettable without being breezily entertaining. I suppose there might be some who want their empty popcorn blockbusters to be drearily depressing for seemingly no reason. Those folks now have a Tarzan movie to call their own. For everyone else, it’s just an expensive two-hour reminder that they don’t particularly care about Tarzan, and that doesn’t exactly feel like the best use of Warner Bros.’ considerable resources.