The Legend of Tarzan movie full length review - "The Legend of Tarzan" effectively updates a classic character, puts him in a compelling historical context and gives us a fresh story with quality acting and visuals.
There's a lot of a history here ? literal and literary ? when it comes to the action-adventure movie "The Legend of Tarzan" (PG-13, 1:49).
The titular "Lord of the Apes", is one of the most enduring and iconic characters in all of literature. Created by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, Tarzan has been the subject of about 100 feature films, dating back to the silent film era (and has also inspired pop culture incarnations including TV series, radio programs, comic books, video games, etc.). The 2016 film places the fictional character in the middle of the real-life story of the European rape of the continent of Africa in the late 1800s. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 effectively divided up almost the entire continent among imperialistically-inclined European nations such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and, perhaps the most infamous of all participants in the age of The New Imperialism, Belgium. That country's King Leopold II "only" got one prize in The Partition of Africa, but it was one of the largest and was right in the geographical center of the continent ? the Congo. Most of the Congo River Basin became the "Congo Free State" and wasn't just ruled by Belgium, but was personally "owned" and managed by Leopold. He exploited the region for its natural resources, such as ivory and rubber, and for the labor of its native population. The Belgians (much like other colonial powers) used their superior western technology to subjugate the Africans, brutally oppress them and use them as slaves to enrich their European masters. It took the people of Africa decades to become completely free of this hegemony but before freedom came to pass, about half of the Congo's 20 million inhabitants had died. 2016's Tarzan becomes personally involved in the early stages of this process.
This film is an origin story with less origin and more story. We first meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) in his capacity as Viscount Greystoke, a member of the British Parliament's House of Lords. He is happily married to Jane (Margot Robbie), his one true love. He is enjoying the life that was his birthright, inherited from his parents who were shipwrecked and died in Africa, leading to him being raised by apes, until he's discovered and brought to Europe. We see parts of that story in brief flashbacks, but this film's focus is on the "present". The British Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) communicates an invitation from King Leopold II of Belgium, ostensibly to come to the Congo and see all the good things that the King is doing for the natives. Lord Greystoke has no desire to go back to the wilds of Africa, but he is persuaded by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a U.S. government representative who is skeptical of the Belgian activities in the Congo and wants to see conditions on the ground for himself.
It turns out that Leopold's invitation was a ruse. The King is not making as much money from the Congo's natural resources as he had hoped, so he has sent Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to central Africa seeking out new sources of income. Rom is looking for some rumored diamond mines when he runs into Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and his warriors. Unaware of how ruthless the Belgians can be, Mbonga offers Rom access to the region's treasures in exchange for Tarzan, with whom the chief has a score to settle. Hence, King Leopold's "invitation". Upon their arrival in the "Free State of Congo", Greystoke and Jane reunite with old friends, but their joy is short-lived, thanks to Rom's cruelty. Greystoke, quickly returning to Tarzan mode, does what he can to help the natives, protect his wife and stop Rom, while Williams does his best to keep up and help Tarzan when he can.
"The Legend of Tarzan" swings for the trees ? and makes it! Writers Craig Brewer ("Hustle and Flow") and Adam Kozad ("Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit") do a great job of taking the timeless character of Tarzan, setting him against an actual historical conflict and giving us a story that is interesting and fresh. There's a distinctly modern sensibility to the script (and you won't finish this movie with a very positive impression of western governments of the late 19th century), but Brewer and Kozad remain true to the spirit of the original character and incorporate aspects of a couple different Tarzan books along the way. Director David Yates (he of the last four "Harry Potter" films) brings us impressive visuals and proves himself a master of tone and pacing, giving us both narrative heft and old-school cinematic excitement.
Yates' cast simply doesn't have a weak link. Skarsgård makes a perfect Tarzan. His well-publicized strict four-month diet and exercise regimen (under the supervision of trainer and nutritionist, Magnus Lygdback) has given him a body that looks like that of someone who grew up among apes swinging from trees and, as an actor, he strikes just the right balance between brooding and determined. Meanwhile, Robbie's Jane creates a modern version of the "damsel in distress" ? desirable and vulnerable, but also intelligent and independent. Jackson seems to be here mainly for comic relief, but maintains his usual strength and dignity, while managing a physicality and a variety of facial expressions that I can't remember seeing from him before. Waltz has carved out a nice Hollywood career playing immoral or morally ambiguous characters and gives us another great one here ? perhaps his most despicable yet.
"The Legend of Tarzan" effectively updates a classic character, puts him in a compelling historical context and establishes who he is while giving us a fresh story with quality acting and visuals. "A"