Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Legend Of Tarzan (2016)

(M) ★★

Director: David Yates.

Cast:  Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou.

"First man to mention that Phil Collins' song gets a punch in the face."

IS there a definitive take on Tarzan?

It doesn’t seem like it. Modern audiences wouldn’t have a clue about the Weismuller films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and almost everyone has forgotten the low-budget Tarzan movies of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The Christopher Lambert film Greystoke from 1984 is rarely mentioned and hasn’t aged well, while the less said of Casper Van Dien’s 1998 effort the better.

That leaves the 1999 Disney cartoon as the title-holder, so you can forgive Yates and co for having a crack at a big-budget, live-action Tarzan for the current movie-going climate. Unfortunately for them, this will not take the crown from Disney.

The film finds Tarzan aka John Clayton aka Lord Greystoke (a super-beefed-up Skarsgård) living in England with his wife Jane (Robbie), his jungle days well behind him.

That is until Tarzan/Clayton receives an invitation from Belgium’s King Leopold II to visit the Congo and help lend legitimacy to the Belgian occupation while simultaneously advancing British prospects in Africa. But the invite is a ruse concocted by Leopold’s envoy Léon Rom (Waltz), who is using Tarzan as a pawn in his quest to get his hands on the legendary diamonds of Opar.

Along for the ride is George Washington Williams (Jackson) – a fascinating real-life character who deserves far better cinematic treatment (or his own film) than to serve largely as Tarzan’s comic relief. Jackson as Williams is the first of many problems for the film. He feels like he’s wandered in from another set – a less swearier Tarantino movie most likely. Amid the drab seriousness of the script and the permanent scowl of Skarsgård’s jungle man, Williams stands out like a kangaroo in the Congo.

There are other odd flourishes that add to the general tone-deaf nature of the movie. Waltz’s Rom – based on a real-life Belgian bastard who ruled part of the Congo in the late 1800s with an incredibly racist iron fist – is a weirdly vanilla villain whose weapon of choice is (and I’m not making this up) a set of rosary beads, which is as ridiculous and ludicrous as it sounds. Neither enigmatic, interesting, dangerous nor threatening, Rom is another disappointment from Waltz, following on from his similarly boring Blomfeld in Spectre.

Robbie’s Jane is less troublesome, but delivers some lines that attempt to lighten the mood yet hit the ground harder than a dead sloth. Her character is fine – Jane is tenacious, headstrong and refuses to be a damsel in distress – but the script doesn’t do her many favours.

That leaves Skarsgård to elevate proceedings. He’s a competent Tarzan who certainly looks the part and handles the mannerisms well, but it’s not the electrifying A-list-making performance he would have hoped for.

There are other problems. The editing is distractingly messy at times and the film sprays its flashbacks all over the place, some of the green-screen and CG work leaves a lot to be desired, and there are some damned silly moments, such as a physics-defying scene in which Tarzan and Williams swing on vines to catch a train.

It’s not a total disaster. Skarsgård and Robbie have decent chemistry, some of the scenery looks amazing (especially when you consider most of the film was shot in England), the wildebeest stampede seen in the trailer is pretty cool, the plot itself is strong, it’s often visually impressive, and the general take on Tarzan as a character is solid. Doing away with the yodel, the loincloth and the “me Tarzan, you Jane” approach is definitely a plus, although the dozens of flashbacks leave out the vital detail of how he evolved from Lord of the Apes to Lord of the Manor.

The Legend Of Tarzan is certainly rarely boring and parts are actually quite enjoyable, but it has the feel of a film that’s had a few too many rewrites, leaving its tone unbalanced and distractingly annoying.

A missed opportunity, this will close the lid on Tarzan films until someone has another swing at it in about 10 years time.

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