THE LEGEND OF TARZAN PLAYS IT SAFE AND CHOOSES MEDIOCRITY OVER BOLDNESS, BUT IT’S STILL A MILDLY ENTERTAINING (IF UNREMARKABLE) ACTION MOVIE
Director: David Yates
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou and Samuel L. Jackson,
Studio: Warner Bros.
Running Time: 1 Hr, 49 Mins
Sometimes you get a movie that is so bad it’s bearable. Other times you get one that’s so tongue in cheek that it’s almost good. And sometimes you get a movie that despite taking itself seriously, seems to settle for mediocrity instead of swinging for the fences. The Legend of Tarzan falls into the last category.
Video: Warner Bros. Pictures
The man once called Tarzan is now Jonathan Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), a civilized Englishman who has taken his place as the Lord of Greystoke, heir to his family’s title and fortune. Eight years removed from the jungles of the Congo, he and Jane (Margot Robbie) make their home in a palatial London mansion, complete with servants and attendants. While his exploits as Tarzan are the stuff of serial novels, his celebrity makes him uncomfortable and he shuns it as often as he can. But he soon receives an invitation to return to the Congo from Leon Brom (Christoph Waltz), the envoy who has been running the near bankrupt Belgian colony. The British government, eager to enter into a partnership with Belgium, urges the former King of the Jungle to accept the offer, and after some soul searching (and a shouting match with Jane, who jumps at the chance to return to the jungle where she and Tarzan met) and a conversation with concerned America envoy William “George” Washington (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan reluctantly returns to the wilds of Africa.
But once there he discovers that his invitation was a cover for an agreement between Brom and tribal chief Mbongo (Djimon Honshou) to deliver Tarzan to the vengeful chief’s clutches in return for unimaginable riches and the means to turn the entire Congo into a slave colony. Brom kills indiscriminately, takes Jane and many of their friends prisoner and Tarzan soon finds himself racing against time to save his wife and loved ones while preventing the Congo from becoming a nightmarish slave nation.
Fist off, Tarzan is not exactly a good movie. Nor is it a tongue in cheek self parody the way Huntsman: The Winter War was (deliberate or not). Tarzan does take itself seriously (sometimes to its own detriment) and tries really hard to be a grown up movie. And in fairness, if you turn your head just so and squint your eyes just enough, you can catch glimpses of its potential. While this movie may be a groaner where you spend a lot of time rolling your eyes you might not be able to help smiling at the same time.
Without a doubt, the best part of the movie is Robbie as Jane. Hardly a damsel in distress, this Jane is defiant and independent. It’s unfortunate that she is still relegated to a supporting player who, despite not being your stereotypical female action lead, still needs rescuing. Considering the strength of Robbie’s spirited performance, it’s a shame director David Yates and the film’s producers didn’t boldly seize the opportunity to make her the lead (now that would have been a real re-imagining) and you can almost see Harley Quinn, the female anti-hero she will be playing in next month’s Suicide Squad, bubbling just beneath the surface. Jackson is effective as the comic relief and the every man that grounds the action next to Tarzan’s seeming superhuman heroics and Skarsgard is better than expected as Clayton/Tarzan, bringing more depth to the role then just long hair and a set of abs.
Waltz does his job as the cold hearted and ruthless Brom, a man who balances human suffering against profit on a spreadsheet. He follows no fanatical ideology, just his single-minded pursuit of wealth and national pride, no matter the human toll, and is a perfect embodiment of unchecked colonial greed and the unimaginable misery that resulted from empire building. Hollywood seems to have run out of ways to use Waltz though. As his debut in Inglorious Basterds proved, he can play a wicked villain, insidious, charming and thoroughly ruthless. Yet his last few roles seem uninterested in exploring his acting mettle. He gets the job done here, but Brom could have been a much deeper, much more malevolent presence. But Yates seems content to settle for barely despicable from one of the most versatile and underrated character actors in Hollywood right now instead of outright chilling villainy. It’s another choice that Tarzan makes that keeps it from exceeding mild mediocrity.
And while the story is pretty straight forward (hoping to minimize mistakes), it isn’t without its potholes. When Tarzan returns to the jungle after an eight-year absence, wandering the streets of London for the better part of a decade, he resumes his vine swinging, tree jumping and cliff diving antics without hesitation or regret. He’s beyond an Olympic level athlete and his physical prowess returns to him without missing a heartbeat. Apparently eight years in cold, rainy London didn’t leave the slightest bit of rust. He encounters animals that are not only are still alive but have powerful memories of him. And seriously, how do people raised in the jungle by apes who then spend their adult lives in Britain, the world capital of bad oral hygiene, have perfect teeth? Even the natives and gorillas have immaculate chompers. Apparently there’s good work to be had or dentists in the jungle.
Tarzan has plenty of warts and it plays it safe, ignoring it’ own possibility in favour of being a mildly amusing little action film. It spends most of its time just trying to stay out of its own way and explore it’s own potential. In fact The Legend of Tarzan is the movie that 2013’s The Lone Ranger could have been; a decent action movie that respects its iconic hero. Tarzan may not be good, but it isn’t horrible and it’s definitely worth checking out on half price Tuesday.