THE LEGEND OF TARZAN features Margot Robbie as Jane—and, like, I’m not going to see it? As it is, marvy Margot is one of the best things about this 2016 CGI-enhanced epic, directed by David Yates, following his four Harry Potter smashes. As written by Adam Crozad and Craig Brewer, the story may be set in Victorian times but the tone has the Tarz-man in tempo with today’s temperament. Not great, but not bad either, a good-looking popcorn flick, and certainly more fun than the serious snore that was 1984s Greystoke; The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes, whose very title bellows pretension.
1889. Living in England with his wife Jane, ‘John Clayton III’ aka ‘Tarzan’ (Alexander Skarsgård) is convinced by American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel J. Jackson) to return to the Congo in order to see exactly how King Leopold of Belgium is treating the subjects of his vast private domain. The wary Clayton, excited Jane and cynical Williams encounter Leopold’s ruthless enforcer, diamond hunter Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), and Tarzan and Jane’s old friends, human and animal. The stage is set for violent confrontation, score settling and destiny. Cue the crocodiles!
Other than helicopter landscape shots done in Gabon, the Congo was recreated in studio back in England, and extensive CGI did the rest; visually it impresses. Waltz is his usual serenely confident self (although you sense he could play this kind of bad guy in his sleep), and Jackson does another of his send-ups, playing the character for laughs, contemporary and obvious, providing the now-expected jokes required by Screenplay 101 to inject before and after action scenes.
Skarsgård worked out like a Spartan for months to get in sufficiently lean and ripped shape (an eight-pack for cryin’ out loud), but his Tarzan, both in his playing and via the writing, is pretty bland for a Legend, someone supposedly awe-inspiring. Then again, to cut him some slack, unlike, say, Robin Hood, Zorro, even 007, Tarzan is such an absurd creation to start with, it’s next-to-impossible to sell the notion–whether you play it serious or satiric—without betraying the essential nonsense behind it. Robbie’s smart, lively and determined Jane is a lot more interesting–it’s the best interpretation of that character yet.
All the razzmatazz cost $180,000,000. Reviews were tepid, and it under-performed in the US, swinging only as far as 24th branch on the tree of 2016 action epics. The worldwide take came to $356,750,000, indicating a loss of perhaps $40,000,000 away from break-even point.
Faults to the side, it mostly delivers; the action scenes are fun, the Gabon scenery is choice and it doesn’t overstay its wishful fancy at 110 minutes. With Djimon Hounsou (thankless role as a Tarzan enemy), Jim Broadbent (Easy Paycheck Time), Casper Crump and Ben Chaplin.
*The real Léon Auguste Théophile Rom was noted for his brutality in helping “administer” the Congo for the Belgian monarch. Among his fancies was having a few dozen lopped Congolese heads decorating his garden’s flower beds. In his book “King Leopold’s Ghost”, author Adam Hochschild suggests Rom was the model for Joseph Conrad’s ‘Kurtz’ in “Heart Of Darkness”. The delicate-natured Monsieur Rom croaked in 1924.
George Washington Williams only lived to be 42, but he crowded his life with action and accomplishment. As Samuel Jackson laments in the film, he soldiered extensively, but was also a minister, politician and a noted writer. He did go to the Congo and helped raise international outcry over King Leopold’s horror show.
Mr. Tarzan and Miss Jane swing on. We will encounter them again.