Who would have thought that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original Tarzan story would spawn more than 50 films, and is still making them a hundred years later? Sadly, for fans of the Ape Man, The Legend of Tarzan is a poor entry to the Tarzan canon – it boasts a boring Tarzan, barely any action and it is, frankly, a bit dull.
Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), an envoy for Belgian King Leopold, is eager to obtain some diamonds for his monarch from a Congolese tribe – in exchange for the jewels, the chief demands that Rom delivers an old enemy to him – Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). Now going by John Clayton III, Tarzan has left Africa to live in Victorian England with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) – however, he is soon lured back to his homeland along with American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to investigate a mining encampment, and face an enemy that threatens to enslave the entire country.
The premise of Tarzan is an interesting one, and this tale takes time to rework it, offering us more than just another origin story (although, thanks to a bunch of flashbacks, that is sandwiched in there as well, in an almost perfunctory manner). There are themes of anti-colonialism and anti-slavery sneaking in throughout, as though the viewer needs to be convinced that these things are bad, but it doesn’t really address them at all. You don’t really want it too, but it would be a bit preferable to the talky and boring mess we have instead.
If we think about it, the major things about Tarzan are the visually spectacular and the action sequences, and this movie is middling on both fronts. Director David Yates has captured some absolutely stunning panoramic shots of the African landscape, but it doesn’t also merge well with the manufactured scenery. There is somewhat of an air of fakeness, especially with some of the CGI animals. The action sequences are occasionally slick and well-staged, but then we have soon in which the camerawork is a bit too confusing to follow what is going on, or which look far too CGI-based.
The worse thing about this Tarzan film, rather unforgivably, is Tarzan. Normally, the role of Tarzan is one in which little acting talent is required, but Yates decides to try and add some psychological depth to the man, and it doesn’t come across – played by Skarsgård, this Tarzan is wonderfully bland. He has the physique, but little else (of particular note is his very one-note face. Be it swinging through trees, fighting animals, casually mentioning his wife lost a baby, being happy to be home or being sad looking at old stuff, his face never strays from a blank expression).
By contrast, the supporting cast are a bit better. Waltz is the villain, because that’s what he does, and his job here is adequate. Sadly, when you’ve got many decent roles like this in your back catalogue, you can’t help but compare. Jackson is the highlight, providing the only bits of fun, almost playing this as a buddy comedy of sorts (although he brings out the dramatic when it is needed just as easily). Robbie loses out a bit – she lacks a personality besides her own forthrightness (she pointedly rejects being classified as a damsel, but then spends most of the movie trapped as bait for her man).
The Legend of Tarzan is a movie with the odd good piece, but it never really has enough to make watching it feel less than dull. There is not enough action, and it feels a bit too overstuffed with talking bits than you don’t really care about. A viewer sitting down for a big budget summer blockbuster may not be disappointed, but you shouldn’t watch it for any more than that.
Director: David Yates
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård (John Clayton/Tarzan), Christoph Waltz (Leon Rom), Samuel L. Jackson (George Washington Williams), Margot Robbie (Jane Clayton), Sidney Ralitsoele (Wasimbu), Osy Ikhile (Kwete)
Running Time: 110 Mins