More noise than signal

The Legend of Tarzan

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

A quick search on IMDB on “Tarzan” brings up 200 results, so we’re not exactly starved for content in this vertical. Still, we’ve certainly not had one in recent times with this amount of wood behind the arrow. Directed by David Yates, who with the last four Harry Potter films under his belt is the 5th highest grossing director of all time, and the $180 million budget isn’t chump change.

Still, my interest in another Tarzan film was best approximated by zero, and only a distinct lack of other options saw me wandering into to a showing. Surprisingly, perhaps because of my total lack of expectation, I enjoyed The Legend of Tarzan much more than the general consensus would imply.

We’re introduced to Alexander Skarsgård’s Lord Greystoke, or John Clayton to his human friends, or Tarzan to his ape friends, as he’s being politely encouraged to accept a suspicious invitation to the Belgian Congo, for some years closed to visitors, to inspect the supposed good works the Belgian King has wrought for the natives. At best it’s a PR trip to curry the favour of the Congo’s most famed adopted son, what with Tarzan having grown up there amongst apes after the shipwreck of his parents, eventually coming to see the local tribes as friends rather than enemies and marrying visiting American Jane (Margot Robbie). We’re shown selected highlights of the traditional Tarzan origin story as flashbacks throughout the film, but I think wisely the film mainly concerns itself with an original story rather than reheat the old one.

The more sinister implication of this invitation is that it’s a trap of some sort, but American diplomat / spy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) urges Tarzan to walk into it anyway, taking him with him to gather evidence that Belgium has been enslaving the locals en masse to help him exploit the Congo’s natural resources, including its diamonds.

Turns out that’s not far off the mark, as the Belgian King’s fixer Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has struck a deal with a tribal leader, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who controls a particularly diamond heavy area who is intent on taking revenge on Tarzan for killing his son – all the diamonds you want for an opportunity to kill Clayton.

Clayton, Jane and Williams almost inadvertently give Rom the slip by leaving their boat early and trekking across country to visit their old home first, rather than go straight to the port where Rom was waiting to arrest them. Not dissuaded, Rom and a team of mercenaries head to the village intent on capturing Tarzan and enslaving or killing the others. They don’t quite expect the fierce resistance encountered, but manage to make off with Jane and a few other tribal members, with the idea that Tarzan and his friends will pursue them into Chief Mbonga’s grasp.

And so kicks off an action adventure across the Congo, swinging on vines, assaulting troop trains, and fighting the wildlife, while Rom goes through his urbane-creep act towards Jane in the way that Christoph Waltz does so well. Skarsgård makes for a compelling enough lead to carry the action, and while Sam Jackson’s not deviating much from the Sam Jackson playbook, that’s sort of why we love him, so I’ve no complaints on that score, particularly when he’s largely playing an exposition sounding board.

It’s yet another big-budget CG-based action outing for sure, but if nothing else at least this looks very different to the usual urban landscapes that our comic book adaptations are so intent on destroying. I’m sure time will eventually date the effects work, but for now it’s looking pretty good, and the jungle settings make for a more visually interesting film than most of its tentpole competition.

Perhaps the main advantage this has over its comic competition is that, despite the similarly fantastical origin of Tarzan’s abilities, the scale of the conflicts are more personal, believable, and much more nuanced than the laughable attempts at the same seen in Captain America: Civil War, for example, and Skarsgård, Waltz, Robbie and Hounsou do much better jobs of portraying that than any of the Marvel crowd.

So, as mentioned, much more enjoyable than expected. It’s not been a banner year for the summer tentpoles to be honest, so saying that this is up there with the best of them isn’t quite the praise that it ought to be, but it’s true nonetheless. Certainly not worth discounting from your viewing schedule, and given the current lack of better alternatives, certainly in the UK at the time of recording, well worth going to see, even if “competent” and “above-average” is as lavish praise as I feel I can justify. The way this year’s been going, though, that’s a good step up from its peers.