I need to be honest. When I first saw the trailers for “The Legend of Tarzan,” my initial thought wasn’t that the movie looked good. In fact, I’m not sure I could have even told you what the movie was about beyond Tarzan and a jungle. In fact, I’m not sure I noticed anything but Alexander Skarsgård in the lead role. A very shirtless Alexander Skarsgård in the lead role.
Yes, that’s totally sexist. I would also probably fuss at a man saying these things, but shoo mercy, the marketing team knew exactly what they were doing. Luckily for Skarsgård and Co., though, the film has plenty of sides to pair with that bit of man candy, and it manages to provide a full meal.
John Clayton III, known to the world as Tarzan, is living in London with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). They’ve left the jungle behind and now live as Lord and Lady Greystoke, reclaiming the heritage and title left behind by his deceased parents. The pair died in the jungle. He was raised by the Mangani, a species of apes first introduced in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.
After the Big Bad (Leon Rom, played by two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz) meets a slightly less Big Bad (Chief Mbonga, played by two-time Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou), they form an alliance. Rom, who is the dastardly emissary of Leopold II of Belgium, founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, needs some money for a maniacal plot. Mbonga, a jungle leader, can help him with that problem. The chief has a spear to grind with our hero for reasons unknown, at this point. How about a little quid pro quo?
So, Leopold II of Belgium invites the once (and future) king of the jungle to return home for a visit. John agrees after some cajoling from American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson). It’s a lengthy speech, but the American is able to speak to the British man’s better angels. They both hate colonialism, imperialism and slavery. Goodbye, white man’s burden!
While Lord Greystroke is on board, he doesn’t want his wife to return to Africa. She’s never felt at peace in Victorian England, but he’s worried about undue stress due to a recent miscarriage. He later caves into her demands in a moving, well-conceived scene shot in a tree, and the three set off for the jungle.
Of course, nothing is ever simple on these jungle adventures. Rom kidnaps Jane to lure John, then the plot gets into high gear.
There are times when “The Legend of Tarzan” takes itself so seriously that you almost forget you’re watching a movie about a man raised by apes. Almost. Then, there are moments when it knows exactly what it’s doing and will slap you in the face with an absurd amount of confidence so you can’t miss it.
Take, for example, the fact that Jane is kidnapped by the Big Bad and must be rescued. It’s a cliché move that has been a staple of stories for hundreds of years. But, when Rom tells her to scream, she says “Like a damsel?” His reply: “He’s Tarzan. You’re Jane. He’ll come for you.”
The film knows it’s using a tried-and-true storyline, but it embraces its pedigree. Jackson is in the film to bring comic relief. He delivers one-liners and makes the audience laugh because that’s why you put Samuel L. Jackson in your film. He’s not there to look buff or be a serious lead. Yes, he has some stoic moments about slavery and fighting against oppression, but he’s there to make you laugh. And, he delivers every time.
And some levity is needed in this film. Skarsgård is a solemn, serious Tarzan. He’s a man of few words but with an undercurrent of passion, vitality and wildness that is barely contained. Fans of “True Blood’s” Eric Northman should love this one.
While “The Legend of Tarzan” isn’t an origin story, it uses flashbacks and voiceovers to give the audience background. John’s story is the standard one we’ve been told since we were little. It’s an effective way to provide exposition without slowing down the action. And, those flashbacks are generally used to flesh out and underscore themes hinted at in the main plot.
After nearly 50 authorized films in the past 100 years, Burroughs’ creation could become stale and tired. There’s no evidence of that happening here though. It’s a nice pulp story with solid acting, cinematography and editing. There’s action, comedy, drama and romance. What else could you ask for?