MOVIE REVIEW: The Legend of Tarzan



Swinging off the big screen and flexing all kinds of sweaty muscles, “The Legend of Tarzan” is an able and exciting summer blockbuster entry just in time for the holiday weekend.  Former “Harry Potter” franchise steward David Yates has packed enough sweep and scope for high adventure while employing enough modern bells and whistles to launch the pulp character further than ever before on the silver screen.  With stunning production pieces, wallet-worthy 3D, buff bods, beautiful people, and a bevy of carnal excitement, this newfangled interpretation delivers a throwback experience of intensity and thrills fitting for the classic hero.

The film takes place in 1884, years after the lore of his newsworthy discovery as a lost baby fostered to adulthood by apes.  Reformed and assuming his noble mantle as Lord Graystoke in Victorian London, John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) entertains a proposition from the House of Commons to return to Africa as a trade emissary, capitalizing on his legendary fame.  Visiting American envoy George Washington Williams (a game Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Belgium’s influx of resources to its Congo province.  He suspects illegal slavery and knows Clayton carries weight and regard with the local natives.

Clayton’s American wife Jane (Margot Robbie) jumps at the chance to return to the Africa were she led a cherished and involved upbringing.  Their villainous target is the nefarious Captain Leon Rom, played by professional dinnertime movie villain Christoph Waltz.  While his country exploits the land and its peoples for railroad gains, Rom has brokered a deal of greed with the violent chieftain and Tarzan enemy Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou).  In exchange for diamond riches, Rom agrees to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga for revenge.  When apprehending Tarzan goes awry, Rom settles on taking Jane as bait, setting off our hero’s return to his roots and the movie’s chase towards confrontation.

Skarsgard may not be the most electric personality in the casting room, but the soon-to-be 40-year-old Swede more than looks the part of Lord Graystoke.  Equally chiseled from the neck up as he is from the neck down, the “True Blood” heartthrob more than knows how to make a living with silent, white-hot smolder that erupts when necessary.  He trades vampire arrogance for fierce nobility and loses none of his swooning sex appeal.  Margot Robbie adds to that heat.  All of the rain, mud, and dirt in the world cannot make her look less fetching or desirable. 

Forgive the coming lecture, but there is a good chance that younger audiences are not going to understand what the character of Tarzan represents in heroic history.  They will maybe know the signature yell and that’s it.  Like Disney’s “John Carter” four years, they won’t get the significance of what they are seeing.  Some will watch “Legend of Tarzan” in an uneducated fashion and label it a knock-off of something they have seen someplace else and not get the reversal of actual influence and inspiration.  The correct dig would be that the film is knock-off of the real thing.   

The team of sophomore screenwriter Adam Cozad (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) and veteran Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow”) crafted their own Tarzan story borrowing bits and pieces of the original novel series’ themes without a specified adaptation source (though 1913’s “The Return of Tarzan” is a good place to start).  To make a marketable film, the brutal and feral Tarzan of Burroughs’s pen had to be softened.  The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson’s winded levity of sidekick comedy is an example of such a modification.  Luckily, his lightheartedness is welcome and fitting.  The same cannot be said for the redundant Christoph Waltz, playing another mustache-twirling adversary in the same vein as his identical turns in “Water for Elephants,” “The Green Hornet,” “Spectre, and “Inglourious Basterds.”  To attain the brilliant two-time Oscar winner’s services is a win for the film’s credibility, but his act is becoming stale.

“The Legend of Tarzan” is far from perfect but it succeeds as a nostalgic take that respects its origins and one that can stand as an entry-level film for a new generation of viewers and fans.  The 1912 creation of genre writer Edgar Rice Burroughs starred in 20 novels before the arrival of Superman in 1938 and predates Stan Lee’s reinvigoration of Marvel Comics by over 50 years.  Characters like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, and Buck Rogers are the original pulp heroes from a time where the written page was the only source of entertainment.  Their adventures influenced and inspired the wide-eyed kids that would go on to create Superman, Indiana Jones, “Avatar,” “Dune,” “Star Wars,” and more.  A measure of respect needs to be taken into consideration ahead of the draw of modern shiny objects.  This film gives you both. 

LESSON #1: MATING CALLS ARE SEXY IN ANY LANGUAGE—Many species of living things on this planet have an auditory trigger of one form or another that hits strikes a nerve and sets off the sexual fireworks.  Instinct takes over and its “business time.”  Mr. Multilingual Tarzan can make a whistle and growl sound pretty darn inviting. Time to add to the repertoire, gentlemen. 

LESSON #2: DON’T CAPTURE ANOTHER MAN’S WIFE—Captain Rom just poked the bear and, not to get all Liam Neeson and “Taken,” but the pursuing husband has a special set of skills, to say the least.  On top of that, Jane is no ordinary damsel-in-distress.  She was raised in these parts (see Lesson #2) and can take care of herself.  Meet the bite that was more than you can chew, Captain.

LESSON #3: YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE WILD, BUT NOT THE WILD OUT OF THE BOY—Go ahead and replace the usual “country” adage with “wild” it all the qualifiers still apply.  John Clayton III cleans up real nice to assume his land and nobility in England, but he will always possess his animalistic core.  Suppression and denial will not defeat that inner quality.