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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

tarzanDIRECTOR: David Yates

CAST: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent

REVIEW:

Is there still a place for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Victorian-era hero Tarzan in the 21st Century?  Director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer apparently thought so, but their case isn’t entirely convincing.  A good old-fashioned vine-swinging adventure perhaps could have been salvaged out of this material somewhere along the line, but what arrives onscreen is a jumbled, muddled, half-baked mess that, like a depressing number of other entries among this summer’s “entertainment”, offers virtually nothing memorable.  The Legend of Tarzan might have brought the 104-year-old character swinging and whooping back into theaters, but is unlikely to launch a new franchise or reignite Tarzan’s name as one to excite modern audiences.

Perhaps understandably, screenwriters Cozad and Brewer wanted to avoid an umpteenth version of Tarzan’s origin story (as many will know, he was envisioned as the orphaned child of British aristocrats, raised by apes in the jungle), so they skip all that, with “Tarzan” (Alexander Skarsgard) having returned to civilization with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and claimed his true identity as British aristocrat John Clayton III, Viscount Greystoke.  But despite their now cushy life in a sprawling mansion, John and Jane are both homesick for the jungle.  They’re given a reason to return when John is extended a formal invitation by Belgium’s King Leopold, who wants to show off the schools and hospitals he’s built in the Congo and hopes a local celebrity can get him some good PR.  But American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects Leopold is hiding less savory activities behind the scenes (namely enslaving the entire region to amass a diamond fortune) and invites himself along.  His suspicions are soon validated by the interference of Leopold’s trusted man Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who orchestrated Tarzan’s invitation and requires his presence for his own agenda.

In keeping with modern sensibilities, The Legend of Tarzan aspires for a little more depth and nuance, at least in its portrayal of the title character, but the screenplay feels half-baked and can’t compensate for the generic plot and sluggish pace.  The whole production has a rushed and slapdash feel and is curiously flat and devoid of energy throughout, even when Tarzan and his ape comrades-in-arms are swinging through the jungle (the over-obvious CGI doesn’t help).  The paint-by-numbers plot (largely consisting of the dastardly Rom kidnapping Jane and then Tarzan following his riverboat through the Congo, seemingly with no great sense of urgency) is heavy-handed and simplistic (our villains are greedy for slaves and diamonds, while our hero is more morally pure because he’s in tune with Nature and the spirits of animals, etc.), and doesn’t escape the inevitable “white savior” aspect of our hunky white hero coming to the rescue of the stereotypical African natives (it doesn’t help that the lone non-African black man in the movie, George Washington Williams, is onhand as a vaguely bumbling comic relief sidekick).  David Yates (who previously helmed the last four Harry Potter films) disappoints with his drab cinematography, except in the sepia-toned flashbacks.  Speaking of, while it was perhaps understandable that they wanted to largely dispense with the oft-told origin story, the screenwriters try to have their cake and eat it too by covering the origin story in “greatest hits” fashion with strategically-placed flashbacks that quickly become excessive and kill whatever fitful momentum the film occasionally threatens to build up.  Yates also tosses in affectations of extreme close-ups of actors’ faces and odd camera angles that feel out of place.  Like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justicethe movie feels edited sloppily.  Scene transitions feel choppy, some end abruptly, and it seems several moments were awkwardly cut around to avoid more graphic violence or racier moments.  The movie plays it safe with its PG-13 rating.

tarzan2With his looming height, long hair, rippling torso (often conveniently bare), and broody expression, former True Blood heartthrob Alexander Skarsgard looks straight off the cover of a romance novel, but his Tarzan is as flat as the page he might have been printed on (also, his half-hearted attempt at an English accent comes and goes at random).  He’s onhand more for his looks and his muscles than for his acting abilities or charisma (in fairness, he did show some of both on True Blood but doesn’t get much chance here).  Margot Robbie provides more spark as the plucky heroine Jane, who’s more a modern independent woman than a Victorian damsel in distress, diving off a boat, spitting in Captain Rom’s face, and trying to use kitchen utensils as weapons during an awkward dinner scene that feels like a less memorable homage to the Marion/Belloq dinner in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there’s only so much the material gives her a chance to do.  Christoph Waltz, who burst from virtual unknown to Oscar winner overnight with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and has been typecast playing watered-down variations of that same character ever since, makes his second annual appearance as the villain in a big summer action movie (following last year’s Spectre) where he’s again underused and stuck as a one-note mustache-twirling villain.  Rom isn’t menacing or interesting and Waltz doesn’t get anything to do.  He’s running on autopilot in “generic Christoph Waltz mode”, just as Samuel L. Jackson is doing the same in “generic Samuel L. Jackson mode”.  Incidentally Leon Rom was an actual historical figure, notorious for his atrocities as commander of Belgian forces in the Congo, far watered-down from his real counterpart here.  Djimon Hounsou has another of the pretty thankless roles he’s seemed mired in since breaking out with Amistad, and Jim Broadbent has basically a cameo.

As an attempted resurrection of an old-fashioned hero, The Legend of Tarzan fails to make his return an exciting prospect and is unlikely to bring any new Tarzan fans into the fold.  There perhaps could have been a good old-fashioned rollicking adventure hidden in here somewhere, but it’s lost in the shuffle.  Among this summer’s weak field of disposable action flicks, The Legend of Tarzan is just another mediocre and forgettable entry.

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