It seems quite fitting in the age of brooding big screen vigilantes that we’d get a Tarzan movie where Tarzan doesn’t really want to be Tarzan. Fitting, but not always thrilling.
Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer’s The Legend Of Tarzan screenplay takes something of a Deadpool approach, starting later in the story (with Alexander Skarsgård’s Tarzan now living a comfortable life in England as John Clayton, before being drawn back to the Congo after rumours of slavery arrive in his ears) but periodically flashing back to his origin tale.
But while this worked for Deadpool (thanks to the anarchic voiceover holding everything together), here it falls pretty flat, with the modern day characters stopping every now and then to stare into the middle distance and relive a very specific memory in their minds. And of course these vivid flashes come in perfect chronological order. It’s a bit like a flashback-heavy episode of Arrow in this regard, with the constant cutting away undermining the pacing of the current story and failing to add anything to the mix. Unless you truly know nothing about Tarzan, you’ll wonder what the point of these scenes is.
The main plotline, though – John Clayton returning to his roots to stamp out injustice – is fairly strong. It’s almost the Tarzan version of The Dark Knight Returns, with Skarsgård’s character gradually losing his patience (and his clothes) as the crimes of the Congo become more and more apparent. When he finally embraces his original identity and swings between trees using vines, it’s a euphoric moment framed emphatically by director David Yates.
Sadly, between the flashbacks and the brooding protagonist shtick, there isn’t really enough time allotted to the supporting cast here. Christoph Waltz isn’t given long enough to produce anything other than Another Christopher Waltz Villain Performance, and Margot Robbie’s Jane – despite verbally refusing to scream ‘like a damsel’ – doesn’t do much beyond getting captured repeatedly.
It’s mentioned a few times that Tarzan has major beef with Djimon Hounsou’s Chief Mbonga (a tribal chap who’s working with Waltz’s Flemish diplomat to exploit the Congo), but we’re not shown enough of this to make the final confrontation meaningful. Legends Of Tomorrow’s Vandal Savage actor Casper Crump provides yet another villainous presence in the movie, but besides a few sneers doesn’t actually do anything.
The only characters served well are Tarzan himself and Samuel L. Jackson’s George Washington Williams (an American Civil War vet who ropes Tarzan into this adventure). Tarzan shows George his world (giving viewers a cipher), and in return George delivers a surprisingly touching monologue about the horrific things he’s seen in his life. Skarsgård gives a strong performance throughout, while Jackson reminds us that he’s got much more in his acting locker than swearing and shooting stuff. (Although, full disclosure: he does swear once and shoot rather a lot of stuff.)
This central relationship, which starts frosty and ends up somewhere in bromance territory (a brief dialogue regarding a gorilla’s scrotum is a particular highlight from their bonding phase), is the heart of the movie and is likely to keep you interested despite the film’s flaws. Of which there are quite a few.
By choosing to jump into Tarzan’s life at a late stage in the tale, David Yates has made a rod for his own back. It’s like he’s skipped straight to the second film a franchise, without laying the groundwork with a strong origin story movie. The result is a film that feels disjointed, cutting back and forth between too many strands and leaving lots of characters feeling underdeveloped.
But Yates, a Harry Potter veteran, knows how to shoot family friendly action. And the main storyline of Tarzan’s reluctant heroic return is quite gripping at points. And the two male leads have enough chemistry to hold everything else together. Still, a missed opportunity.