Modern films have a terribly convenient plot structure, A to B to C. After a while, any film having to do with a remotely superpowered individual will look like every other. We follow our hero (generally a white dude) from childhood, discovery of specialness, loss of a parent (usually), love interest, bad guy plot machinations, dark night of the soul, wacky sidekick and eventual overly CGI confrontation where good triumphs – but without actually delivering the killing blow, thusly only getting charged with a lesser crime.
Now, all of these happen in The Legend of Tarzan , the latest take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character. But at least director David Yates attempts to make it interesting by jumbling up the order of events. The overall experience may be nothing special, but at least they’re trying something new.
The titular legend is told mainly through an elaborate series of flashbacks. This is a bold…maybe ‘smart’ move on the creators’ part, because even if you’ve never picked up one of the Tarzan tales, you no doubt know the basics of the story. These moments occupy the softer moments, during the many pauses in the current-time action and they help to enforce the mythicness of Tarzan. More importantly, it also keeps the story from being so damn predictable. This also allows the viewer to see Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgaard) as he is post-legend. Now, he’s just a dude living in a manor, doing…whatever it is English nobility does. Which is mostly mooning over past exploits and wearing impeccable robes, and drinking wine.
After a brief opening, which introduces us to our villain, Leon Rom (the always great Christoph Waltz) we’re back in London. Tarzan, now Lord John Clayton of Greystoke manor, is invited to the Belgian Congo – his original home – as a part of a goodwill mission so that the king of Belgium can pay for his kingdom. I hope you like politicking and racial issues alongside your African adventures, because you are going to get a lot of both.
Where The Legend of Tarzan stumbles is its insistence on being grim and gritty. Call it a by-product of ‘Nolanification’. This is perfectly encapsulated in Skarsgaard, a man who never once smiles. Not even when he’s swinging from a vine. Skarsgaard was mainly hired for two reasons: to grimace and, most importantly, to look good without a shirt. He succeeds at both! He’s great at both. But he makes for an awfully dull and uninteresting jungle-man. One desperately wants to follow Christoph Waltz who, true to his style, first owns the scene, and then proceeds to eat it. The man even uses a Rosary as a weapon. Why? Because he can. And because he needs to be menacing in some way.
Ultimately, while Tarzan is at times pretty to look at and never truly ‘boring’, the film is a dour slog of shadows and grumpiness. There is no ‘ah! adventure!’ or fun anywhere to be had save for a few precious moments from Samuel L. Jackson There is revenge and slavery and poorly edited fights and insistence of jumping around all the timeline. Had this been released in the mid-90s and been the same, I daresay it could be a beloved cult classic to this day. Instead, an uninspired tone and one-dimensional main characters sideline a few good ideas that are buried somewhere in this heart of darkness.