Years after having left the African jungles, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård, HBO's 'True Blood'), is invited by Belgium’s King Leopold to revisit the Congo as a trade emissary of Parliament. Initially reluctant, Clayton is convinced by American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to accept and use the trip to investigate rumors of native enslavement. With his beloved wife Jane (Margot Robbie, "The Wolf of Wall Street") insisting on accompanying him, Clayton walks into the trap set by the King's envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, "Spectre") in "The Legend of Tarzan."
There are many nits to pick with David Yates's ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows") production - unconvincing CGI, murky vine swinging, mysteriously selective fires, dialogue too modern for 1890 - but there is no denying that it is a rousing adventure and grand romance set within Belgium's horrific exploitation of the Congo. Adam Cozad ("Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit") and Craig Brewer's ("Hustle & Flow") take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs series may begin with Clayton as a member of the House of Lords, but the Tarzan origin story is deftly woven into the movie's fabric as a series of well placed flashbacks.
That seeming gesture of Belgian good will, something the British are eager to accept for its financial opportunities, is really Rom's plan to hand over Tarzan to old enemy Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou, "Furious 7") in exchange for a fortune in diamonds. The Claytons arrive with Williams for a joyous reunion with the Kuba tribe that the American Jane lived with, but it's short lived, Rom and his soldiers arriving to shoot the beloved Kuba chief and capture Clayton. Sharpshooter Williams steps in and saves John, but Rom makes off with Jane, Kwete (Osy Ikhile, "In the Heart of the Sea") and others of the Kuba tribe, destroying their village as they leave. John comes up with a route to reach the port of Boma before Rom's steam paddle boat (and an army of 20,000 mercenaries) gets there, Williams humorously struggling to keep up.
The action alternates between Tarzan, who swings onto a train of enslaved men and meets up with many of his past animal brethren, including 'brother' Akut, whom he must fight, and Jane, whose spirited resistance enthralls Rom. They cross paths in the Opar region, where Tarzan once again must battle, this time with Mbonga. But where Rom makes enemies, Tarzan gains allies.
A magnificently buff Skarsgård is a swoon worthy Tarzan. He is, unsurprisingly, a man of few words, his upbringing making for a more empathetic mode of communication (the one thing flashbacks do not reveal is his 'domestication'). He and Robbie sizzle on screen with gentle, yet animalistic heat. Robbie radiates goodness and purity, but also a fierce determination. Waltz, who's frankly been repeating himself ever since "Inglourious Basterds," tones down the campiness here. It's another villainous role, but with his exotic silken stranded Rosary garrote, he's made it more organic to the material. Jackson, like Rom, based on a real historical figure, adds comic relief.
The production uses a lot of modern technology, location filming married to sets in scenes often viewed through a milky haze. All animals are CGI with varying degrees of success, a group of elephants clearly animated, repeating patterns marring the climactic stampede. Even the swinging version of Tarzan is CGI, Skarsgård's face superimposed, the vines making extraordinarily wide arcs in dense jungle. Suspend your disbelief. Other aspects are higher quality, from costume to Tarzan's distinctive undulating yell. Rupert Gregson-Williams' ("Hotel Rwanda") score wraps the whole in drumbeat grandeur without being overbearing. Yates uses subtitles for the several non-English languages spoken throughout the film.
It's been decades since we've had a theatrical Tarzan movie (Disney's 1999 animated version was the most recent). With its historical reminders of colonial injustice, "The Legend of Tarzan" is a solid reentry point.
Robin did not see this film.
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