Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Yates
Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin.
Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs over a century ago, Tarzan is one of the most popular fictional heroes in literature. The child of English aristocrats, he was raised in the jungles of Africa by apes after the death of his parents. He is intelligent, loyal, strong and courageous and fights against evil and colonial powers in deepest darkest Africa. There are a few similarities between his character and that of Mowgli, the young hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, which was recently filmed with the use of some superb CGI effects.
Tarzan has been played numerous times on screen and television, most notably by former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker, Buster Crabbe, and on tv by Ron Ely. The latest incarnation of Tarzan is played by Alexander Skarsgard, from tv series True Blood, etc, who has obviously buffed up and has the right physicality for the role.
But thankfully this reboot of Tarzan is not another origins story (we’ve had that numerous times before, especially with the gorgeous looking but dull Greystoke). However, for those unaware of the history of the character, a series of flashback sequences do tell us the back story of Tarzan. When the film opens, Tarzan has left the jungle behind and is now living the comfortable life of an English gentleman in his ancestral home, stately Greystoke manor, with his wife Jane (Australian actress Margot Robbie, from Focus, etc).
But he is eventually drawn back into the jungle. The British government has received a request from the Belgian government for Tarzan’s help in promoting their achievements in their colony in the Congo. Tarzan initially refuses as he has no wish to return. But he is persuaded to go by Civil War veteran and anti-slavery activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), who wants Tarzan’s help in proving that the Belgians are exploiting the natives through the use of slave labour to build their railroads and to mine their mineral wealth. He is after justice, and needs Tarzan’s help.
The Belgian’s representative in the Congo is the slimy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has done a deal with native chief Mbongo (Djimon Hounsou), who holds a grudge against Tarzan, to lure our hero into a trap in exchange for access to a wealthy diamond mine. Rom and his troops attack a village where Tarzan and Jane are staying. While the villages are enslaved and loaded on to a train Tarzan manages to escape with Williams’ help. But Jane is being held hostage on a riverboat as it steams towards the port city where Rom will meet a newly arrived army of heavily armed Belgian troops.
Eventually Tarzan is forced to strip away his veneer of civilization in order to save Jane and stop Rom. He takes on a colonial power intent on raping the land and enslaving the native population of the Congo.
Written by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (writer and director of Hustle And Flow, the recent remake of Footloose, etc), The Legend Of Tarzan remains reasonably faithful to the essence of the character as created by Burroughs, but also attempts to inject events with some relevance. The film is a little slow to get going, but once we reach the African jungle the pace picks up, and The Legend Of Tarzan becomes a fast paced rollicking adventure.
David Yates, best known for his work on the final four films in the successful Harry Potter series, handles the key action sequences well. A stand out is the scene where Tarzan battles some Belgian soldiers on a fast moving train. The CGI created animals however vary in quality – the apes are as good as anything created in the recent Planet Of The Apes movies, but the recreation of whole herds of stampeding animals that wreck a coastal town are a little less convincing.
Some of the film was shot in Gabon, and cinematographer Henry Braham (Nanny McPhee, The Golden Compass, etc) has captured some gorgeous scenery, and the locations add to a sense of authenticity. Braham also uses an interesting colour palette to depict the various locations. and shifts in time. The early scenes at Greystoke Manor are shot in dull greyish colours meant to represent the chilly nature of the English countryside awash in rain. The flashback sequences are shot in warmer golden hues.
A ripped Skarsgard is perfectly cast as Tarzan and has a raw and primal physicality that suits the role. He swings from vines, he communicates with the animals, and does everything you expect of the character. In Robbie’s hands, Jane is no mere damsel in distress waiting around helplessly to be rescued, and she brings a more contemporary, feisty quality and strength to her performance. Skarsgard and Robbie share a palpable sexual chemistry here. Jackson provides most of the comic relief, although there is a moment when he reflects on some of the horrible things he has witnessed in his life and which have left an indelible impression. It gives us some insight into the motivations of his character, who was apparently a real life anti-slavery crusader.
Apart from being on speed dial for Quentin Tarantino, Waltz must also be on the short list of every Hollywood director looking for someone to play the suavely menacing European villain. As Rom, Waltz plays yet another variation of the same sort of character he played in films like Inglorious Basterds – suave, softly spoken, with the same smarmy smile and urbane manners as he quietly threatens someone. But here he brings a couple of new affectations – the white suit, which is unsuitable for the dirty jungles, and a rosary which also doubles as a deadly weapon.
The Legend Of Tarzan is a good starting point if the producers wish to turn this into a new franchise. After all, there are plenty of adventures in the Burroughs books to keep the series running for a long time.