Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violent action and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.16
The original Tarzan franchise ran an impressive five decades, starting during the silent era and continuing through the late 1960s, when Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famed character finally was silenced by the James Bond-influenced spy movie craze (which the final few Tarzan films attempted to emulate, with predictably awful results).
No doubt hoping to revive what once had been a great thing, Hollywood subsequently mounted a fresh Tarzan roughly once per generation, with little success. Robert Towne’s highly anticipated Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, with Christopher Lambert in the title role, wound up seriously compromised by behind-the-scenes squabbling, and died an ignominious death upon its 1984 release.
Even so, that was a better fate than that suffered by 1998’s dreadful Tarzan and the Lost City, Casper Van Dien’s stint in the loincloth not even a blip on the cinematic radar. Indeed, were it not for Disney’s wildly successful 1999 animated feature, I’m not sure the character would resonate in this 21st century, aside from the ongoing devotion shown by Burroughs fans.
How ironic, then — how pleasantly ironic — that just when the regal jungle lord seemed doomed to extinction, a fresh team has delivered a truly majestic Tarzan film.
We’ve not seen an entry this entertaining since Gordon Scott’s terrific double-header of Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent, back in 1959 and ’60.
Scripters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer managed a truly impressive balancing act. On the one hand, they’ve faithfully honored the Burroughs template, acknowledging John Clayton as a feral child who grew up in the African wild, but later reclaimed his British roots as the fifth Earl of Greystoke, and a member of the English House of Lords. He’s a deeply moral and perceptively intelligent man (as greatly opposed to the monosyllabic dummy Johnny Weissmüller made him, in so many early films)
At the same time, Cozad and Brewer have addressed contemporary sensibilities, granting John and his wife Jane the enlightened awareness to recognize — and repudiate — the heinous late 19th century imperialism that arrogantly (and arbitrarily) “divided” great swaths of Africa between various European monarchs, who subsequently subjugated and/or enslaved the resident populations.
All that aside, this film also succeeds as an exhilarating adventure that pits the remarkable jungle lord against overwhelming odds orchestrated by a hissably evil villain. Everything builds to a (literally) smashing climax, which drew more than a few enthusiastic cheers from Monday evening’s preview audience.
This is a Tarzan to admire.
Events begin in England, as Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) — in his role within the British Parliament — receives an invitation to tour the “great works” that Belgium’s King Leopold II has accomplished in his chunk of the African Congo. John initially declines, believing that part of his life behind him; he is persuaded to reconsider by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a visiting American soldier-turned-humanitarian, who has heard rumors that Leopold’s mercenary soldiers are enslaving entire tribes.
John is influenced further by Jane (Margot Robbie), who grew up doing missionary work in the Congo — where she and her future husband met — and regards the region as more “home” than their English estate. On top of which, John and Jane adore each other, and neither can stand the thought of a lengthy separation.
And, so, John relents; he, Jane and Williams embark on the lengthy sea voyage that eventually brings them to Africa.
Ah, but what John doesn’t know, is that his “invitation” is a plot hatched by King Leopold’s primary emissary, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz). The goal: to capture Tarzan and deliver him to the jungle lord’s mortal enemy, Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), chief of the Mgolonga tribe that guards the Opar region, which is rich in diamonds and other minerals. Mbonga has a longstanding score to settle with Tarzan, and wants his head on a plate.
So, we’ve got it all: social and economic relevance, enemies old and new, and a loving bond capable of driving an already miraculous champion to even greater feats. What more could a Tarzan fan desire?
Cozad and Brewer are deft storytellers, balancing the ongoing “current” events with brief flashbacks that reveal how John Clayton came to be adopted by a gorilla tribe, grew up learning how to communicate with all jungle animals, went afoul of Mbonga and, finally, met Jane and re-entered so-called “civilized” society.
(The latter qualification is significant, because this story’s various Congolese tribes — and the gorillas — behave with far more civilized decency than Rom and his minions.)
Flashbacks require a careful balance. Too many, and they impede or even destroy the continuity and atmospheric flow of the core narrative; too few, and we lack essential back-story details. This film achieves just the right blend, with director David Yates and editor Mark Day maintaining an equally deft pace.
Yates is an old hand at larger-than-life literary franchises, having helmed the final four installments of the Harry Potter film series (along with this fall’s upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Yates demands sincerity from his cast: These events may be fantasy/fantastic, but they’re presented with credible earnestness by all concerned.
To be sure, humor is present — much of it deriving from Williams’ stubborn, forever winded efforts to keep up with John — but only in service of the storyline, not at its expense.
Skarsgård makes a superb Tarzan, balancing John Clayton’s integrity and intelligence with impressively buff physicality. The 6-foot-4 Swedish actor has a commanding presence, and we don’t doubt for a second his ability to free-run through jungle undergrowth, swing through the trees — truly thrilling, each time he does it — or engage his gorilla “brother” Akut in brutal, alpha-establishing combat.
At the same time, Skarsgård has a brooding, pensive nature — well remembered from his long run as Eric Northman, on HBO’s True Blood — that perfectly suits this interpretation of Tarzan. Our jungle lord grieves over man’s inhumanity to man and other creatures, and what gets lost (and butchered) along the way.
Skarsgård also shares palpable chemistry with Robbie; there’s no question that theirs is one of the Great Loves Of All Time. As befits the consort of a jungle lord, Robbie’s Jane is no simpering “damsel in distress,” as even she contemptuously insists, at one point; this is a smart, wily, resourceful woman with no fear of the jungle that intimidates most of Rom’s European intruders.
Robbie’s scenes with Waltz, after Rom has (predictably) kidnapped Jane, are choice: crafty verbal fencing that Jane, despite being quite skilled, cannot hope to win.
Poor woman: She has no chance. This is Christoph Waltz, fergoodnesssake: inarguably the finest, most craftily civilized — and heinous — villain working in today’s film industry. I always think back to that opening scene in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which introduced the soft-speaking Nazi scoundrel that earned Waltz his first Academy Award, and brought the actor to our attention here in the States: a magnificent, somehow irresistible handling of a ghastly human being.
Not since Anthony Hopkins’ debut of Hannibal Lecter, had we been confronted with so charismatic a baddie: one on whose every word, and every expression, we hung. Waltz’s performance here as Leon Rom is no different.
Jackson looks damn fine for a guy just a few years shy of his 70th birthday, and he delivers an impressively shaded role. As mentioned, Williams is the source of most of this film’s lighter moments, whether spoken or displayed; at the same time, he’s essential as the narrative’s verbal conscience, and therefore must be taken seriously. Jackson never misses a note.
The sweeping African tableaus, both flora and fauna, are majestic: a luxurious collaboration between cinematographer Henry Braham, production designer Stuart Craig, and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke. It’s sobering to consider how frequently the latter’s talents were demanded, given that today’s African Congo looks nothing like the stunning vistas and creature-laden jungles showcased so casually here. But it’s a lovely fantasy, and we easily go with it.
Every summer movie season offers a surprise or two: a film that far exceeds cautious (or even nonexistent) expectations. The Legend of Tarzan is one of this year’s treats, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Thanks to Yates, Cozad, Brewer and Skarsgård, Burroughs’ fifth Earl of Greystoke should be with us for at least another generation.