The Legend of Tarzan and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by David Yates
I had no idea this movie was even coming out until maybe a month or two ago, and it seems like the studio wants it that way. They’ve been trying to get a live action Tarzan movie out since AT LEAST 2003 (probably to capitalize on the Disney film) and you can really tell that this shit was cobbled together from a production that’s been willed into existence by sheer stubbornness at the refusal to let a bad idea (or at least a good idea with no good way to bring it to life) just go away and to work on something else. Still, the Disney movie WAS pretty good and he’s a character that’s endured for over a hundred years now as he was a creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs; the king of badass genre stories. Do they manage to eke out an enjoyable action flick from this timeless source material, or will this suffer the same fate as the Conan remake and John Carter which were the last two Burroughs adaptations? Let’s find out!!
A quick refresher on the story of Tarzan that we all know (as told by Phil Collins). AHEM! A paradise untouched by man; a simple life, the apes lived in peace. But dangers are in fact no stranger here! The son of man known as Tarzan is taken in by the apes after his parents are killed, but in this version it’s actually the apes that killed his dad… so I guess that makes things a bit awkward here. Despite that; the power to be strong, the wisdom to be wise, all these things came to him in time during his journey from boy to man! But in time he ALSO wanted to know about these strangers like him. One stranger in particular was Jane Porter whose every gesture and every move she made in turn made Tarzan feel like never before, and soon he had this growing need to be beside her. Now if you only know the story from the Disney Movie (pretty much anyone born after 1990 and are HOPEFULLY getting all these clever jokes I’m making), you all know that his story ends with Jane staying with him in the jungle. Not true here (and in pretty much every other version of the story from my understanding) as he goes to some other world far beyond that place; namely England. Thankfully this brings me to the ACTUAL movie I’m talking about (also meaning I can stop quoting Phil Collins lyrics) which involves a domesticated Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who’s being asked by the British government to go to back to his home (The Congo) for… some reason. Actually, I’m not sure why Jim Broadbent (playing A British PersonTM) wants him there so badly, but I do get why Samuel L Jackson wants him there who’s playing George Washington Williams; an ambassador for the US who wants to see if the rumors about the Belgians enslaving people in their colony is actually true so he can report it back to his government. Tarzan (also known as John Clayton) begrudgingly accepts the assignment and also begrudgingly accepts that Jane (Margot Robbie) is gonna go along with him. Waiting for him in The Congo though is Christoph Waltz playing Captain Léon Rom who is assigned by the King of Belgium to get some damn diamonds out of that colony by any means necessary, and Tarzan is the key to getting them. How? Well there’s a tribe there whose leader is SUPER pissed at Tarzan and has agreed to help Waltz get the diamonds if he will deliver Tarzan. Needless to say that Rom goes about this in the most dickish way possible which includes kidnapping Jane, and so Tarzan must go after them to save his wife and stop them from doing any more evil shit in his home country; all of this with the help of Samuel L Jackson of course. Can the two find out what Léon Rom is up to and save Jane before it’s too late? Just what is Christoph Waltz up to other than to pillage the country of all its natural resources? Wait, this movie is somehow less than two hours!? Well it certainly FEELS a lot longer, that’s for sure.
This movie is boring, but sadly enough it feels like it’s that way by design. All of the outlandish elements that make Tarzan INTERESTING have been stripped out of this movie to make it more… I don’t know, realistic? Why anyone would WANT a realistic Tarzan movie is a question far beyond my grasp, and yet that’s what we have here. Does anyone out there remember that Robin Hood movie Ridley Scott made? Of course not, because that movie was lame. Unfortunately, that very same reason is why everyone ALSO forgot the lessons that failure was supposed to teach us. Hopefully though, this movie will be enough of a reminder that no one tries to make something fun and lighthearted into grim and gritty uber-serious dreck. Oh who am I kidding? This one will be forgotten even faster than Robin Hood was.
So the big problem here is that they want to take a more grounded approach to Tarzan so as to… I guess make the drama and action THAT much more compelling? Needless to say that the movie fails oh so spectacularly at it and there are two main reasons why. First is that a lot of the fun in Tarzan was in the outlandish stuff, so by downplaying that or outright removing it, you take away a lot of what makes Tarzan so interesting. Now to put ALL my cards on the table, I know nothing about Tarzan other than the Disney movie as I have never seen the countless black and white films or have read the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Even so, it’s not hard to figure out what the appeal is of the character and why this movie’s failure (or outright refusal) to capture that is what makes this an interminable slog to sit through. The dude doesn’t talk to animals in this version which I’m guessing is something that only really was a factor in the Disney version, but this movie is trying REALLY hard to ape (heh heh heh) a lot of the iconography of that movie without going into outright plagiarism. As such, there are LOTS of flashbacks here of Tarzan as a kid with the apes, and yet the scenes fall flat because the animals can’t really be characters here and they’re shot so god damn seriously. He’s got a brother that’s in and out of the movie (both in flashbacks and in what’s happening now) but we can’t really invest in him as a character because… well he’s an animal! There’s no room for fantasy in this movie, so the scenes of Tarzan with his brother or with other animals don’t come off as family getting back together but as an animal trainer trying to keep from getting eaten. He just seems so disconnected from the jungle that he doesn’t seem like Tarzan at all; just a guy with BODACIOUS muscles who knows how to climb trees and swing on vines.
The other reason this movie doesn’t work is that, like with the damn Superman movies, the filmmakers seem to equate boring and stuffy with gravitas and maturity, which means that Tarzan is COMPLETELY uninteresting to watch on screen. Alexander Skarsgård is NOT a bad actor, but he also hasn’t shown a knack for choosing good scripts and BOY does it screw him over here. There’s a reason the trailers of this movie barely even have Tarzan in them, and it’s because the guy just does not have anything interesting to say and only has something interesting to do on occasion. The guy doesn’t even have an arc in this! There’s no greater meaning for him to take out of this adventure he’s having or even a moment in this where he makes a genuine mistake. There’s like one or two scenes where bad guys get the jump on him, but he just gets up, dusts himself off, and goes out for more. Now normally that would be a typical stoic badass move, but this extends to pretty much all the emotional beats instead of just the action ones. Jane is kidnapped and you just don’t a real sense of heartbreak over it. The Belgians are enslaving people and Christoph Waltz is being a total prick, but all of this barely fazes the guy. Compare this to Captain America who never slows down and never wavers in the middle of a mission, but he then has moments when he’s just Steve Rogers and has to unpack all the shit he’s gone through. This movie doesn’t have time for moments like that for Tarzan and it suffers immensely because of it.
Thankfully the supporting cast (one of the few bright spots in this movie) manages to pick up a lot of the slack here. They don’t COMPLETELY fill the black hole of banality that is the Tarzan character, but Samuel L Jackson bitching and moaning his way through the forest provides a welcome reprieve to the glowering dumbass we’re supposed to be following throughout this. Yeah, he’s anachronistic here as a wise talking black man in the 1890s (a role that worked much better in The Hateful Eight because at least that movie wasn’t trying to be super serious), but he’s genuinely funny, he has an ACTUAL arc unlike Tarzan, and it is pretty cool to see a black historical figure from that period in time in a big budget Hollywood movie. I mean, this character COULD have carried his own movie (anyone else want a George Washington Williams biopic now?) but he’s a welcome addition here, especially when you consider what his absence would leave us with.
Christoph Waltz is fun as the bad guy in this (as he always is when he’s being deliciously evil), but his motivations are just stock villainy clichés and he’s impossible to take seriously throughout this, especially when this tiny man with an especially groomed mustache is supposed to be badass enough to stop Tarzan with a damn rosary. Yeah, that’s his secret weapon and he uses it like a ninja weapon. Maybe in a better movie that embraced it’s inherit silliness, this could have worked (and have been expanded upon), but in this movie that they made it comes across as anachronistic and pulls you right out of it.
There are points in here that do work and you can see what they are going for. There’s a rescue mission in the middle of the movie where they board a train and kick EVERYONE’S ass who’s on it, and it’s pretty satisfying to watch Tarzan being proactive. Normally the guy is just walking on trees, but in this scene he comes alive for once it manages to be one of the highlights of the movie. While rest of the action isn’t quite as good as that, it’s at least competently done, and I DEFINITELY have to give it credit for being very conservative with the good ol’ CLOSE UPS, QUICK CUTS, SHAKY CAM shtick of which there is SOME but not a whole lot. As I said, the supporting cast in here is good, but mostly from Samuel L Jackson and Christoph Waltz. Margot Robbie is fine here and showed potential as a really great Jane, but she’s given so little to do in here that it feels like a complete waste to have her even in here. The movie cheekily makes reference to her being a Damsel in Distress, but then does nothing to differentiate itself from every other movie that uses that tired trope.
There’s really nothing more to say about this. It’s a movie that doesn’t justify its own existence (or its exorbitant budget) and therefore has no reason to be seen. There are far better Tarzan movies out there that you can watch instead of this (the Disney movie for example) so don’t even bother wasting your money when there’s better stuff out there like The Purge: Election Year, or even The Shallows. You’ll forget about this movie in a month, and that’s the best thing that everyone involved here could possibly hope for.
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