The Legend of Tarzan

Here’s a review of that summer movie where the hunky white guy is the savior of black slaves. No, not Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones. The other movie in question, The Legend of Tarzan, works hard to mix the historical and current topic of slavery, colonialism and empathy towards animals into a romantic adventure. It’s also about a man who wears pants but swings shirtless on vines, can converse with every animal in the jungle, wrestles gorillas and aims to save human and animal kind from poachers and slave traders. The problem withThe Legend of Tarzan is that this lead-footed, endless dud tries to be too many things and isn’t the one thing it should have been: fun.

Alexander Skarsgard’s abdominal muscles register strongly in his portrayal of Tarzan, whose romance with Jane (Margot Robie) and notoriety as a jungle-raised hero put him at odds with a murderous opportunist (Christoph Waltz). There’s also an angry warrior (Djimon Hounsou) and a pissed-off gorilla who both want Tarzan dead.

I wasn’t a fan of the depressing, overlong but fascinating Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes from 1984. Yet, that movie had Christopher Lambert, striking in his starring role debut as Tarzan, and the amazing, Oscar-winning ape make-up and costumes that are still utterly convincing. Here, the CGI jungle creatures are amazingly lifelike and give the best performances. Skarsgard clearly worked out but his physique is stronger than his stiff acting.

Robie and Samuel L. Jackson are so distractingly contemporary, I grew annoyed with their lazily anachronistic dialogue. To put it another way, when Jackson sarcastically asks Tarzan if he should lick a gorilla’s nuts (I’m not kidding), it sounds like a line written just for Jackson, who is in full Snakes on a Plane self-parody mode. Robie is a real actress but makes so little an impression here, I wonder why she’d choose such an empty, damsel in distress role. Waltz barely conveys the kind of menace you’d expect from him, which is a surprise, since he’s normally great in anything. Robie and Waltz have a dinner sequence that’s obviously meant to remind us of the similar, tense, cat and mouse meal shared between Beloq and Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here, the scene goes on too long, has no tension and gives us two actors not fully engaged by the screenplay.

There are a couple of cool little moments, like the sight of buildings being smashed Jumanji-style by a herd of stampeding animals. Yet, there are no sustained or exciting sequences, as every scene is over-edited and cut too short.

I was one of the few who enjoyed The Green Hornet but will admit that the character, as well as that of Tarzan and The Lone Ranger, have no place in today’s cinematic landscape. Someone needs to stop a Hollywood movie executive before they try to bring Charlie Chan back as well. Characters who loomed large in the early 20th century aren’t easy to adapt, let alone make relevant or compelling today.

The best recent Tarzan movie is still Disney’s 1999 animated film, which is corny but has riveting action and some catchy songs. The worst is probably the 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man, which exists to offer the world more glimpses of a naked Bo Derek (hooray for cinema!).

The Legend of Tarzan has a few arresting visuals but the screenplay is cluttered and the performances don’t sell it. Honestly, it could have used, for starters, some Phil Collins tunes and gratuitous nudity to make it better.

One and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly