Friday, September 2, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan: A Review (Review #842)


For anyone interested, it takes a bit past the one hour to see the glory that is Alexander Skarsgard's extraordinary physique.  Until then, we have to sit through a lot of talking, a meandering story, and some pretty sleep-inducing moments.  I say this because during The Legend of Tarzan, I fell asleep and once I did wake up still struggled to stay awake.  It isn't as though I don't appreciate what The Legend of Tarzan wanted to do.  It's just that I don't think it did it well.

King Leopold II of the Belgians has taken his personal colony of The Congo and essentially run it to the ground.  He not only is in serious debt but has done everything possible to make the lives of the native population miserable, down to reintroducing slavery.  As part of some rehabilitation plan to showcase that the stories of Leopold's abusive acts are false, he asks the British government to send in John Clayton III, His Grace Lord Greystoke (Skarsgard), who was once known as "Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle".  His Grace has no interest in returning to Africa, but is persuaded by American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson).  He is upfront about his real reason to go on this merry jaunt through the jungle: he wants to see if the slavery rumors are true.

In reality, everyone is being deceived.  Tarzan is being lured to the jungle thanks to Leopold's envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz).  He has made a secret deal with a major Congolese leader, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who wants Tarzan for reasons revealed later in exchange for diamonds the greedy and desperate Leopold will use to pay off his debts.  Back in Britain, over his objects Jane, Lady Greystoke (Margot Robbie) insists on returning to Africa to reconnect to her own roots and see her old stomping grounds.

Rom waits for Lord Greystoke but is unwittingly given the slip when His & Her Grace along with Dr. Williams take another route.  Tarzan reunites with his old father figure and the village where he first knew Jane Porter.  It takes three days for Rom to go to the village but he does so, taking both of them prisoner.  In the melee that follows, Tarzan is accidentally set free while Jane is held prisoner, the bait that will bring Tarzan to Jane...and to Mbonga.

Tarzan and Williams join forces, albeit reluctantly, while Jane does her best to escape the clutches of the virtually mustache-twirling Rom.  As they traverse the jungle, Tarzan fights old simian foes, and Jane manages an escape.  Eventually both groups meet up when Rom catches up to Jane as she is besieged by the various apes that Tarzan now fights as Lord of the Jungle.  Mbonga then confronts His Grace, accusing him of killing his heir long ago.  Tarzan in turn rebukes the Chief due to his son having murdered Tarzan's adoptive mother, leading to a defensive killing. 

Mbonga is spared by Tarzan and his ape army, but now they all go after Rom, leading to a final confrontation between them for ownership of the jungle.  At the end, a year passes.  Greystoke is left cold and alone in Britain, while His and Her Grace continue to live in peace in the native village, where at long last Greystoke has an heir born in his true home: Africa.

Part of me admires that The Legend of Tarzan tried something new or at least original than the more traditional story of finding Tarzan in the jungle.  Part of me however kept wondering that The Legend of Tarzan essentially played out like a sequel to a film I hadn't seen.  I think this is due to Adam Cozad and Craig Brewster's screenplay, which had a very curious set of flashbacks which filled in information that again felt like clips from a previous Tarzan film.

How Tarzan came to be, his encounters with Jane, her life in Africa, his battle with Mbonga...all those came floating by in bits and pieces, intercut with the general story we're being told.  I am not convinced that they were well-integrated into The Legend of Tarzan, primarily because one either had already worked out some things or was kept waiting to see why certain things were the way they were.

Take Mbonga's hatred for Tarzan.  We first learn of it when we meet Mbonga, who has spared Rom after killing all his men who entered his kingdom as a way to get his fierce enemy back.  It isn't until almost the end that we learn why Mbonga had such a hatred for Tarzan, but I wonder whether we could have had that brought up earlier, either in an earlier flashback or in a pre-credit scene.

I think structurally The Legend of Tarzan was trying to be too clever with the material, to get away from a more straightforward telling of a well-known story.  The end result for me was something that caused me to nod off and fight to stay awake on more than one occasion.

This issue with structure I think is clear from when we first meet the title character.  He isn't Tarzan.  He's Lord Greystoke, and a very stoic Lord Greystoke too as played by Skarsgard.  I'm the first to acknowledge Skarsgard's great physical beauty, but I am yet to be convinced that he is an actual actor (not having seen him in True Blood).  I used to tease a coworker who was passionately in love with Skarsgard (a Christian woman for whom Skarsgard was her one slice of sin) about him being 'box office poison', every film of his being a bomb.  This doesn't make me think my initial analysis is wrong.

Throughout The Legend of Tarzan, I found Skarsgard to be very remote and generally inexpressive, making me wonder whether the character was always suppose to be so unemotional.   No matter what was going on, Skarsgard/Tarzan/Lord Greystoke didn't seem to show any emotion, making things a bit curious to me.

Much better was Robbie as Jane.  Robbie is proving to be a much better and stronger actress than I gave her credit at the beginning of her career.  At first I thought of her as just an extraordinary beauty (and she is indeed that).  However, she was a much more interesting character and gave a stronger performance as Jane, this strong woman with a mind of her own, one who genuinely loved Africa and its people, and one who didn't have either a racist or patronizing view of the native Africans.  In fact, her Jane was the only character who not only seemed to do something but who wasn't stained with either a sense of superiority or a 'white man's burden' view of the people she grew up with.

That is until she is a bit sidelined as the 'damsel in distress' (though to her credit Robbie at least on screen fought that idea).

Jackson too was a bit sidelined and I wondered whether his less-than-athletic Dr. Williams was a bit of comic relief.  Comic relief (intentionally or not) came from Waltz's gleefully villainous Rom, vamping it up for all its worth to where I'm sure he'd twirl his mustache if it were long enough (a joke about it where Jane mocks it was a nice highlight).

I think director David Yates at least went for something different, something original with a story that is pretty well-known.  I don't think it worked: The Legend of Tarzan coming across as a bit slow with a rushed, excessively rushed ending and at times pretty dull.  Still, given just how awful 2016 has been, The Legend of Tarzan is not BAD bad, just a bit less than its parts.

Even if those parts belong to Alexander Skarsgard.


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