Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan (Photo: Warner Bros.)
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY David Yates
STARS Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson
In my youth, I used to mainline Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as if I were Al Pacino snorting up all that cocaine in Scarface. My habit extended to the filmic versions, including all 12 Johnny Weissmuller yarns, most of the Gordon Scotts and Lex Barkers, the TV series starring Ron Ely, and 1984’s intelligent and handsomely mounted Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. I even suffered through the 1981 Bo Derek atrocity Tarzan, the Ape Man, a movie so agonizingly awful in every regard that critic Leonard Maltin, in his annual Movie Guide, amusingly wrote that it “nearly forced editors of this book to devise a rating lower than BOMB.”
Like James Bond, Tarzan on screen has never gone away, but unlike the dapper double-oh agent, his movie appearances rarely generate much notice — one would have to go back to the final year of the last century to find a Tarzan flick that more than 12 people saw (that would be Disney’s 1999 animated take). The Legend of Tarzan seeks to jumpstart the franchise for a new generation, and it certainly puts its money where its mythology is. It’s directed by David Yates (helmer of the final four Harry Potter pics), it stars former True Blood hottie Alexander Skarsgård as the ape man, and it features a supporting cast led by two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, ever-popular Samuel L. Jackson, and current Hollywood “It Girl” Margot Robbie.
The script by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad dispenses with the familiar origin story in a couple of flashbacks and instead opts to begin with the former jungle man already having assumed the mantle of Lord John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, back in England. Happily married to Jane Porter (Robbie), he’s talked into heading back to Africa by George Washington Williams (Jackson), a human rights activist and, interestingly, an actual historical figure who protested the cruel treatment and enslavement of Africans in the Congo, all under the order of Belgian King Leopold II. Another real-life character appears in the form of Léon Rom (Waltz), the king’s emissary in the Congo and a sadist who reportedly kept the decapitated heads of local blacks in his garden. Thankfully, nothing this Rom does is quite that awful, but he’s nevertheless an amoral opportunist and the primary reason Lord Clayton shucks his duds and returns to the swinger lifestyle.
With his soulful eyes and ripped abs, Skarsgård is more than acceptable as Tarzan, although the same can’t be said for his co-stars. Robbie is rather drab as Jane, while Jackson again proves to be too contemporary an actor to be believable in a period setting. Waltz is fine, but we’ve seen him play this part before. As for the animals — well, there are none. Part of the joy of the Burroughs adaptations of yore was watching Tarzan and Jane interact with the jungle denizens, but here everything has been created by computer. Indeed, the fact that the movie has been CGIed to death is one of its biggest shortcomings — even the jungles created on the studio back lots were more convincing than the sterile sheen that dogs this picture’s every move. As with The BFG, imagination too often takes a back seat to artifice, and while this film’s robust energy makes it the better bet of the two, the return to the intersection of Hollywood and vine deserved a more memorable retelling.