A lot happens in a short time before the opening credits. While wading through the Congo, a band of arrogant sounding British soldiers are massacred within seconds by an African tribe.
The one survivor, the man whom Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) has allowed to live, Captain Leon Rom (Christolph Waltz) appears mostly unconcerned; worried for his own safety, yes, but indifferent to those murdered around him. Rom, a Belgian with nothing on his mind other than his own well-being, is looking for diamonds. The Chief has a deal. There’s a man who once wronged him and now the chief wants revenge. “Bring him to me and you will have your diamonds,” Mbonga tells the Belgian captain. Rom can only smile. He agrees. “All I need is a name,” he tells the chief. The word Tarzan bursts onto the screen.
In an old-fashioned, Saturday morning serial kind of way, it’s a good beginning, particularly when you know that the character of the Belgian captain was a real, historic character. And throughout, in case you think that the film’s portrayal of his selfishness and villainy are somewhat extreme, consider this: In real life it is said that he would keep the heads of Black Africans in his flower bed and allow his men to casually murder the locals for the smallest of offenses.
Rather than keeping things simple – find Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), kidnap him, take him back to the Congo and exchange him for diamonds – director David Yates has a different, more involved story to tell. Tarzan’s been out of the jungle for some time. Now he’s John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, and he lives in London with his devoted American wife Jane (Margot Robbie). And even though he appears to enjoy his life, the British government needs his help. Along with another real-live character, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Lord Greystoke is asked to return to the jungle as a trade emissary. With Williams and his Jane by his side, the man once known as the ghost in the trees, returns to Africa, oblivious to the fact that all of this has been arranged by the villainous Belgian captain. Rather than go after Tarzan, the captain has arranged for Tarzan to come to him.
There’s a lot of promise during those early scenes; the setup is good, the characters are well established, the casting seems initially fine, and that opening massacre indicates some solid action to come; it’s once Tarzan, Jane and Williams get to Africa where the problems start.
Skarsgard makes for one somber Tarzan. He certainly looks the part – tall, rock star hair, handsome with a chiseled body that looks as though he worked out off-camera seconds before every take – but for all the leaping and the swinging from tree to tree, he talks as though he’s bored out of his mind. Occasionally the look of either pain or a mounting anger crosses his face, but for the most part Tarzan expresses little to no life. If he’s pleased to rumble in the jungle once again and to catch up with some old animal friends after such a long absence, he’s certainly not showing it.
He’s also presented as something of a super-jungleman with unlimited strength, a caped crusader without the cape, or even a shirt. Without spoiling a climactic moment, let’s just say Tarzan’s neck must have had its own muscle-building workout regime. Even author Edgar Rice Burroughs would have groaned.
As a technical effect, the animal CGI, all of whom appear to recognize Tarzan at first glance, is, as expected in movies these days, a remarkable achievement, yet the temptation to make them almost as anthropomorphic as the ones in Disney’s recent The Jungle Book but without the ability to speak English removes this Tarzan from all reality. When a leopard hesitates, looks over its shoulder, pauses for thought, its eyes lowered, that’s a performance following a script. However, the bison stampede on a coastal village is undeniably spectacular.
Samuel L. Jackson never ceases to entertain, even when he plays each character as an extension of everything he’s done before, but at least he’s good at it. As Williams, interested in finding proof of slave-labor in the Congo, the be-wigged Jackson is the side-kick, the comic relief. It’s the 1800’s, but Jackson with his particular delivery and that constant are-you-kidding me? look of comical bemusement can’t help but sound like a modern-day transplant sent back in time, particularly when he references the testicles of a threatening ape. What he says will get a loud laugh, especially as it sounds like a Jackson ad-lib, but again, Burroughs would not be pleased, or, more likely, the late nineteenth century author wouldn’t even get the joke.
Austria’s Christoph Waltz as the callous and unsympathetic captain continues his Hollywood career playing bad guys. That sense of calm yet deadly menace he portrayed so well in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds has yet to be repeated, despite the number of eloquent sounding villains he’s played since 2009. Here his villainy seems routine – other character actors might have done more – plus, even though he has an accent, it’s hardly the French or Dutch sounding Belgian.
Only Australia’s Margot Robbie’s Jane seems to work without issue. The original character was always American, though those early Tarzan movies with Maureen O’Hara had her English (so, too, did the Disney musical) but here the writers have given the character her country back. Robbie’s accent is convincing and her portrayal of Jane as a plucky heroine is well-rounded. She’s modern, but for someone who – as we learn in flashbacks – survived the jungle with her father, her behavior and inner strength is just as you would expect. She just about saves the movie.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 109 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)