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There’s an early scene in The Legend of Tarzan when American Envoy to the Congo, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) says, “Me Tarzan, You Jane” in making note of John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke’s (Alexander Skarsgård) colorful and illustrated history as Tarzan. He uses the line, which is implied to be one everyone in the room of delegates and officials surely know well, as a farce and yet more importantly as an identifier of what he really is in the eyes of those surrounding him. For the audience, it’s designed to separate the movie from expectations, much like how Daniel Craig‘s Bond replied, “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked if he’d like his vodka-martini shaken or stirred. It’s a signal that even the studio knows how often we’ve heard it and so try to trick us into thinking this experience will somehow be different. But that’s a fallacy of course. The whole reason franchises succeed is because of the familiarity. With The Legend of Tarzan, even though the plot is ostensibly not an origin story, it really is and everything we see is what we’ve seen before. It even has a Bond villain.
It starts in the Congo with a few lines of exposition about 19th century colonialism in Africa, slave labor and the obsessive quest for diamonds. Some of that is still true. Either way. We meet Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a corrupt agent of Belgium’s King Leopold sent to take control of the lands. They arrive at a fog-filled choke-point in the rocks of the jungle and do battle with a tribe of painted natives who easily dispatch the legion of armed soldiers accompanying Rom. Naturally, Rom, dressed entirely in white, including his brimmed hat, which has fallen off and is now on the head of an enemy, goes unscathed and remains the only one standing. Surrounded, he is approached by a bulbous chunk of barbarous muscle who looks to do in Rom, but this is the start of the movie so that doesn’t go as planned. Suffice to say, Rom deals death with his Rosary beads. When it’s over, the chief, Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), makes a deal with Rom that he can have all the diamonds he wants if he can deliver his most hated enemy to him. You can guess who that is.
So we head to London and discover that Tarzan is now John Clayton and living with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). Clayton, while reluctant at first, is convinced by Williams to join him in a trip to the Congo to uncover the atrocities happening in the mines. Jane wants to join and after the obligatory Africa-is-no-place-for-a-woman speech, Tarzan relents to her desires and the three head to the dark continent. Of course, all of those objections are wasted since we learn in the next few scenes that Jane actually grew up in Africa with her missionary parents and in fact, it is (duh) where she met Tarzan. We even come to a local happy tribe where she is greeted with much celebration. Also, Tarzan meets some of his old friends, too. Three fully-grown lions on the savanna who nuzzle him like he’s the owner of the house just back from work.
Not long after though, Rom arrives with his men of greed and lay waste to the village and kill the beloved chief. They kidnap Jane and the real plot begins. They steal her into the jungle as bait and attempt to lure Tarzan to their trap. As is necessary, the regal Lord Greystoke must shed himself of the trappings of civilization in order to save his woman and end the tyranny of his adopted homeland. That leads to some troubling decisions and confrontations and the always impending rape/death of Jane at the hands of Rom and his goons.
Directed by David Yates, best known for the Harry Potter series, The Legend of Tarzan is a mostly competent if not curious film. This is an obvious attempt at a franchise builder, as few studios these days are sinking money into nostalgic properties without a long term goal. Tarzan has been around for decades and it’s a solid name, but beyond its origin story, it doesn’t have much appeal, which is what the superhero franchises are learning. Where do we go from here? How often can we watch Jane get rescued? As it is, it’s a CGI-heavy, mostly convincing movie that hits all the obligatory marks. Yates knows action and handles the pace and tempo very well. The movies, for all its dark style, does look good. Skarsgård is well-cast and highly reminiscent of Christopher Lambert‘s sinewy take on Greystoke back in 1984. Robbie and Jackson hold up their ends as well. Then there’s Waltz, who worked with Jackson in Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained, and is his usual self. It’s becoming easy to point that out, to describe a Waltz performance as a “Waltz” performance, but that’s what it is. There is no nuance anymore, and the brilliant, terrifying idiosyncrasies that defined his award-winning take as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds is edging close to parody. There are some effective moments but they come at a price.
The Legend of Tarzan is not the epic-scale romance of its source. It is a modern tale trapped in a setting that, especially in today’s culturally respectful times feels not just outdated but sometimes a little uncomfortable. The movie takes a few moments to try and address that, and casts specific actors to temper that discomfort, but it’s hard to avoid. That said, there’s some fun to be had watching Skarsgård swing through the canopy. Legends often endure from a simple, emotional image.
Director: David Yates
Writers: Adam Cozad (screenplay), Craig Brewer (screenplay)
Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou