Silver Screen: The Legend of Tarzan ***1/2
Tarzan is a tough sell in 2016.
The least of its problems is the zoological silliness of a man who can communicate with apes and rally the animals of the jungle in a coordinated attack against interlopers. This was the stuff of fantasy even at the turn of the twentieth century when Edgar Rice Burroughs created the character.
Modernity’s beef with the Tarzan story is more socio-historical. It’s plenty understandable to chafe at the notion that the King of the Jungle in Africa is a light-haired Caucasian superman. Why, just toss any old white baby into a continent of dark-skinned people with a few thousand year’s history and he’ll be running the place in no time.
And there’s the further improbability that Tarzan is civilized by a dainty Englishwoman, Jane, whose sole purpose after introducing this brute to the superior ways of the Western world is to be imperiled and saved by her vine-swingin’ man.
If you’re going to watch a Tarzan movie, you’re going to have to look past this. Understandable if you choose not to, but there’s no escaping the fact that Tarzan is inherently a throwback story rooted in colonialism, Western exceptionalism, and uncomfortably exoticized tribalist caricature.
If you do choose to embrace old-fashioned pulp storytelling, with all its historical asymmetries and prejudices, you could do far worse than David Yates’s handsome, rousing The Legend of Tarzan. It’s a patiently paced, serious but not solemn update in which Harry Potter director Yates attempts to polish the artifact without scraping away any of its essential architecture.
Half origin story, half Unforgiven-style reluctant return to action, The Legend of Tarzan opens in late 1860s London with our hero, officially rechristened Lord John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) of Greystoke. His lady love Jane (Margot Robbie) has returned him to his native land and his aristocratic birthright. He’s downright civilized, sipping tea with a self-conscious pinky extended from one of his massive hands and declining a royal request to return to Africa as a celebrity emissary. But he still has time to thrill local children with tales of his days as the man who became King of the Apes.
John is convinced to go back to the Congo by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American agent who wants to use the diplomatic visit as a ruse to glimpse the hidden machinations of a slave trade. G.W. Williams is the movie’s most significant attempt to atone for the story’s uncomfortable, ingrained racial bias. He’s a man of color— and a man of action— who also forefronts the movie’s awareness of the evils of colonialism and unfettered capitalism.
Uncharitably, you could also view Jackson’s character as a walking, talking exemplar of the “but I have a black friend” argument. And when he grimly tells John that after enlisting for the north in the Civil War he subsequently signed up again to serve as an “Indian fighter,” bloodying his own hands, you could read that either as specific acknowledgement of Americans’ own tendency toward the same crimes, or as a kind of relativistic, moral wash. “Hey, you’ve done some bad stuff, we’ve done some bad stuff, let’s not get too blame-y on ol’ Tarzan here!”
Back in Africa, John, Jane, and George hook up with childhood pals from the jungle, including a friendly tribe who welcomed Jane’s family years before and John’s estranged brother-ape. Here’s where the new special effects technology really helps justify the remake. The apes, rendered with great detail and expressiveness as in the new Planet of the Apes series, are finally able to be real characters. It significantly deepens John’s connection to his animals and the environment that reared him.
Of course, George is right— there’s trouble. The Belgian King Leopold, who controls the remote and hazardous Congo, has sent hatchet man Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to make sure the white soldiers, with the aid of an enslaved local workforce, can access the fabled diamonds of Opar. To gain access to the land, he strikes a tenuous deal with the fearsome Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who wants one thing in return: a chance for revenge against the man who killed his son. (Hint: It’s Tarzan!)
The Legend of Tarzan takes its time arranging all the pieces on the board. Better be content for awhile to gaze at the verdant vistas of Africa, and the gorgeous people Yates has placed in it. Interspersed throughout all of this are fragmentary flashbacks from Mbonga, John, and Jane that fill in the gaps and cobble together, sometimes a little clunkily, an origin story.
Eventually, finally, when Jane is kidnapped, John gets his Tarzan working. It’s a thrill. Just as in the disjointed and bloated but still-kinda-underrated Lone Ranger update, which triggered a spine-tingling rush when our hero roared back on Silver and the William Tell Overture began to play, The Legend of Tarzan gets the heart racing when our hero at last lets out his trademark roar.
And what a hero he is. Skarsgård is exceptional here, both in his massive, frankly astonishing physical form, but also the relative restraint and control of his performance. His arched eyebrows and wry smirk suggest there’s plenty going on in Tarzan’s mind, while his powerful build makes even the most dizzyingly improbably vine swinging seem almost plausible.
Alas, the movie’s attempts at modernized gender politics are less successful. Yates and his screenwriters want to make Jane more than a delicate damsel, but they resort to the laziest of contemporary cheats. The perfectly capable Robbie gets off a few sassy lines to her captor and stages a couple of failed escape attempts. As in so many movies that can’t imagine more proactive roles for their female characters, she’s shown trying to do something, but not really succeeding at any of it, and winds up as bait for the hero anyway.
Okay, so me Tarzan, you Jane, we still kind of old-fashioned. But Yates rewards those willing to endure their share of eye rolling with an impressive fidelity to the coolest elements of Burroughs’s stories. He imbues the jungle with terrific menace in Rom’s fog-steeped introduction to the perilous Congo, stages a terrific fight aboard a whistling steam engine, and captures Tarzan in all his fantastical majesty in a slam-bang climax. It’s one of the summer’s more surprising delights.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.