As a character, Tarzan has been around for more than a hundred years. He is nearly as old as another literary creation of the era, Sherlock Holmes. It was inevitable I suppose that with the new digital technology at their fingertips, someone was going to do a new version of the Tarzan story. Robert Downey Jr. gets to be Ironman and Sherlock Holmes, but the new millennium and the nature of the character probably suggest that the new Tarzan be a different face, an actor who is competent but not well established as a star. Enter Alexander Skarsgård, a handsome man with solid credits on high quality television programs and some supporting parts in other films. This is his chance to step up and become a star, if he can manage to sell us on the idea that he is an enlightened British Lord who started his life as an adopted member of a troop of Great Apes. It’s a tall order to fill but he manages to do a credible job for a couple of reasons. First of all, Tarzan is not a character known for eloquence. He is not unsophisticated because as Lord Greystoke, he is a member of the House of Lords, but as the child of a savage world without humans for the most part, he has learned to communicate in subtle, non-verbal ways. Skarsgård, may have the fewest lines of the four major characters in the film, but it is not really noticeable because he says so much with his actions. Second, he is a close doppelganger for the young version of Christopher Lambert, who made his debut on the international film stage in the same character vehicle.
In a way, his resemblance to Lambert connects the two films that were made 32 years apart. Had “Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” been a bigger success, this could easily have been the follow up film. A large section of the 1984 film, was devoted to the origin story of Tarzan. This film pays homage to that story but does not make it the focal point of the film. The structure of “The Legend of Tarzan” is mostly a straightforward narrative with occasional flashback sequences to provide exposition and context. It’s a rather effective way of including the origin story without belaboring it. As a result, this movie feels fairly fresh and works as a stand alone episode in the story of our jungle pulp hero. The difference in tone is important. Unlike the Johnny Weissmuller films, which are somewhat campy adventure stories, the Greystoke film of 84 sought to probe more deeply into what distinguishes man from beast. It had a solemn message about the savagery of colonial times but also about the duality of Lord Greystoke/Tarzan. This film touches ever so briefly on the later and spends most of it’s time on the former. The plot concerns the exploitation of Africa bu European powers that are willing to use unscrupulous methods to achieve their objectives. Naturally, Tarzan stands in the way. Some of the 50s and 60s version of the Tarzan tale told the same kind of story. “The Legend of Tarzan” takes the colonial period in Africa and uses it much like a James Bond thriller, with a plot to enslave a whole country by an evil figure being thwarted by our hero, while at the same time he saves the woman he loves. It’s pretty good stuff but not very deep.
The three other main characters also bring something to the table that make this version of the legend even more successful. Quinton Taratino’s favorite German actor of the last decade, is cast in another villainous role. After “Inglorious Basterds”, he has been the heavy in a half dozen films. Most recently Christoph Waltz was the featured antagonist of James Bond in SPECTRE. I’m fine with him collecting a paycheck but I hope he is able to expand his resume a little more. In this movie he is Leon Rom, an envoy of the King of Belgium, tasked with gaining access to the riches of the Congo, and using a plot against Lord Greystoke to do so. His scenes with Tarzan’s mate when she is his prisoner, have a suitably creepy tone to them. There is one good moment where his eyes and voice express admiration for Jane, and for a moment he feels like a human and not just a cardboard bad guy, although he plays that cliched role well. Margot Robbie seems to have come out of nowhere in the last couple of years and is on the verge of exploding into mega stardom, if she can act as well as she looks a part. She will soon be Harley Quinn in a series of D.C. comic book movies and that will add fuel to the fire of her career.In this film she was solid. There was a great degree of sexual chemistry between her and Skarsgård. Tarzan and Jane look and sound like a couple who are in love and actually care about one another. Each is given an opportunity to show the desire they have for their partner in a non-lascivious way. She also gets some action scenes and as the dialogue intentionally lampoons, she is not just a damsel in distress.
The final major star of the film is somewhat surprising. What Samuel L. Jackson is doing in this film is not entirely clear. A black Doctor, as an envoy from the government of the United States personally selected by President Benjamin Harrison, he is an anachronism that defies story telling with one exception, he brings his personality to the movie. Jackson is a frequent spark plug for a moment of humor or dramatic intervention in the film. Amazingly enough, he manages to do this without once using the word that he is the foremost practitioner of in movie dialogue. It is frequently said that Samuel L. Jackson simply plays Samuel L. Jackson when he is cast, but I see differences in his tone and personality from film to film that do make his characters more distinctive. Just as in “The Hateful Eight”, he is a Civil War veteran in this movie. Major Marcus Warren was a malevolent and hateful character, but George Washington Williams is sad and hopeful. The way he handles his six guns in this movie are completely different that the Tarantino chamber piece from last Christmas. The tone here is light and fun and he seems to care for humanity rather than despise it. I think you have to be a pretty good actor to sell the misanthrope of last year and the heroic side kick in this picture. Jackson does so and the movie benefits as a result.
The look of the film is accomplished, blending CGI jungles and mountains with real backgrounds to effectively give the movie a sense of scope. Director David Yates, who did the last four Harry Potter films, is accomplished at moving exposition along with the action. That ability serves him well with this picture. While I might still prefer the Rick Baker ape make-up and costumes, the CGI animals in this film are impressive and make the impossible possible on film. I could have used more practical vine swinging, the CGI in these sequences draws attention to itself, but most modern audiences will accept it easily.
I really wanted this film to be good, but after an early trailer, I thought it might end up as a special effects laden mess. I was pleasantly surprised and quite pleased with the results. I was out of town last week when it opened and I tried not to read anything about it. I did hear a few positive words from some media sources but they only raised my fear threshold. As it turns out, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a respectable addition to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs on film and a mid summer treat that I would encourage anyone to see, but especially those who like the pulp characters of the past and want to see them live on to the future.