THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN  * 1 / 2

Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou and Christoph Waltz. Screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Directed by David Yates.

I try to follow trends in the trades but I can never quite fathom the hows and whys of ancient properties like The Legend Of Tarzan being rebooted into mega-budget wannabe franchise-starters. Were the folks at Warner Brothers really so jealous of Disney’s John Carter grosses that they just *had* to jump aboard that Edgar Rice Burroughs money train? This hardly seems worth the trouble, given the political minefields of the material in this enlightened age, and today’s youngsters don’t exactly appear to be clamoring for colonialist pulp adventures from the early 1910s.

But if you had any misgivings about the possibly queasy overtones of making another Tarzan movie in the year of our lord 2016, rest assured they’re shared by the filmmakers. It is a strange feeling to be watching a movie that seems to be apologizing for itself as it goes along.

Altogether sheepish for a film about the Lord of the Apes, this particular Tarzan tries to write around the Legend’s more problematic elements by grounding the tale in a bloody chapter of actual African history. Samuel L. Jackson co-stars as the real-life George Washington Williams, an American Civil War hero and the first to speak out against King Leopold II’s brutal slave-driving regime in the Belgian Congo. He still gets to do that in the movie, but he also gets to be Tarzan’s sidekick and make comic relief jokes about licking a gorilla’s nuts.

Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) is happily civilized these days, chilling at his stately British manor with his hot schoolteacher wife Jane (Margot Robbie) when he’s invited back to darkest Africa on some sort of diplomatic mission that couldn’t possibly sound shadier. Turns out it’s all a trap — setup for a lip-smacking baddie in a Fitzcarraldo suit (Christoph Waltz, still giving the only performance Christoph Waltz ever gives) to turn Tarzan over to a tribe leader with a grudge (Djimon Hounsou, doing his umpteenth variation on the noble savage) in exchange for the diamonds King Leopold needs to foment his slave empire. Or something like that.

Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer (yes, he of Hustle And Flow, Black Snake Moan and the Footloose remake) try their mightiest to lend the moldy tropes a modern sensibility, even though most of the time they’re just paying lip service. Robbie, a spry starlet with charisma to burn, busts out of the gate announcing she’s no damsel in distress, then proceeds to spend the rest of the picture tied up and waiting to be rescued. Waltz carries with him a rosary that he uses as a garrote, which I think might supposed to be symbolism or something but I can’t tell because it’s too subtle.

Really we’re just stalling until Stellan Skarsgard’s giant kid rips off his shirt and starts swinging from vines, bossing around all the bwanas and the beasts. The movie gives Jackson a monologue startlingly similar to (though considerably less profane than) a character beat from his sadistic Major Marquis in The Hateful Eight, memories of which just serve to further show up the icky British power fantasy of a white nobleman raised in the wild, lording his natural-born supremacy over interchangeable natives and monkeys. Again, was this really a movie worth making at our particular moment?

A few years ago Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp revived The Lone Ranger as a grandly psychedelic and subversive folly that seethed with righteous hatred over this country’s treatment of Native Americans. I still can’t believe that Disney’s Fourth-of-July blockbuster climaxed with the title character gunning down countless U.S. soldiers to the tune of the William Tell Overture. (I often think about that poor bastard sitting near me who’d brought his eight-year-old son. There must have been some tough questions during their drive to the fireworks that night.) But The Legend Of Tarzan isn’t interested in blowing up its central myth so much as it bashfully just wants to get it overwith.

Director David Yates, who herded the last sixteen or seventeen Harry Potter pictures across the screen, handles The Legend Of Tarzan as politely as possible under the circumstances, as if well aware of the unfortunate iconography and doing his best to downplay it. I can’t be sure if it was an issue with the 3D transfer I saw, but the film looks bleary and washed-out. Even the jungle greens are olive drab, adding to the air of resignation that leaks from the film’s second hour like a deflating balloon. Skarsgard is a gorgeously sculptured hunk of inertia. If only he had half the screen presence of his abs, we might be getting somewhere.

It’s impossible not to come away from The Legend Of Tarzan wishing that a more aggressive, adventurous filmmaker – like Craig Brewer, maybe – might someday tell the real George Washington Williams story. I bet they could even get Samuel L. Jackson to play him.

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