Directed by David Yates Starring Christoph Waltz, Alexander Skarsgård, Djimon Hounsou, Margot Robbie & Samuel L. Jackson Film Review by Kieran Freemantle
The summer of 2016 has a deluge of sequels, franchise films, reboots and revival of old properties. One of them being Tarzan who is making his first appearance in a Hollywood film since 1998 where we saw Disney's Tarzan.
King Leopold II of Belgium has laid claim to The Congo after the Berlin Conference, a territory with rich resources. However, Belgium bankrupts itself trying to build the infrastructure in The Congo, forcing the king to send his emissary, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to find the source of the Opar diamonds. Rom makes a deal with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), if Rom can bring Tarzan back to Africa Mbonga will let the Belgians have access to the diamonds.
Tarzan, AKA John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has assumed his birthright, the Earldom of Greystoke and has lived in England with his American wife Jane (Margot Robbie) for eight years. Tarzan is convinced by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American war veteran, to accept an invitation to visit The Congo as an excuse to investigate alleged atrocities by Rom and his mercenaries.
The Legend of Tarzan is the first major film by David Yates outside of the Harry Potter franchise and he is already set to go back to that series, directing the spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, coming out later this year. It is a shame that he has gone back to his comfort zone, but it is not much of a surprise because the production, going over-budget, forced it to be shut down. Just like the revival of The Lone Ranger a few years ago.
Also like The Lone Ranger, The Legend of Tarzan has had some troublesome accusations against it. The Lone Ranger's problem was casting a white actor to play a Native American stereotype while The Legend of Tarzan was criticised for being a white man saviour story. Despite this The Legend of Tarzan is an entertaining yarn, best thought of as a deliberately old-fashioned story. It's a romp in the vein of Indiana Jones and Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (an idea for a Warner Brothers crossover), stories where a hero has to stop a nefarious villain as he tries to gain political, financial or mystical power.
Yates has shown himself to be a competent action and special effects director and he provides the goods for The Legend of Tarzan. The film opens with impressive battle sequences where Belgian soldiers fight to the death when outnumbered by a determined African tribe - fans of Zulu would appreciate this sequence. There are solid fist fights, including Tarzan fighting a huge gorilla and a fight scene in a train. Fans of historical set action films will be pleased with what Yates and his team put on the screen.
Yates does experiment with other filmmaking techniques. The most successful is the use of slo-mo during the action scenes (mainly because I am a sucker for stylised slo-mo). This was mainly used when soldiers had to battle African tribes to add to some emotional weight. Other techniques had a negative impact, the worst being the camera constantly moving when Tarzan and Williams are talking after an attack on a village - it was distracting and added nothing to the scene.
The Legend of Tarzan had a titanic task to match photorealistic CGI work that we have seen in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series and this year's The Jungle Book. The Legend of Tarzan is able to keep up for the most part, showing great apes that could match Caesar and Koba from the Planet of the Apes series while other animals likes lions, leopards and wildebeests are impressive. Sometimes the quality of the effects does dip and looks fake, but for the most part The Legend of Tarzan can stand alongside other blockbusters on the special effects department.
The Legend of Tarzan is at its best when Christoph Waltz is on screen, a moustache twirling villain of old that will do anything for money, able to make deals but so distrustful. He is a coward but he is not someone that should be underestimated - an example being the opening action sequence where Rom shields himself from a barrage of spears while his soldiers are fighting to the death, yet he is able to take down a huge warrior with his chosen weapon, his rosary beads. Waltz has been typecast into villainous roles but he does it so well.
It's a shame that the rest of the cast could not match Waltz's performance. Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan, looked the part, having impressive muscles, but a bit bland. Robbie and Jackson are the weak links, particularly Robbie acting too modern for a film set in the Victorian era. Jackson has the same issues, the worst being a joke he makes when he faces a gorilla.
The other issues effecting the film were its screenplay and editing. Despite The Legend of Tarzan having an old fashioned tone and story the screenwriters attempted to make The Legend of Tarzan a revisionist approach to the character. The worst example involves Jane - she is made out to be a strong independent woman who doesn't take no for an answer and says that she's not a damsel in distress. Just because she says it doesn't mean she isn't one. A terrible example is when Jane escapes from Rom and his forces just so she can be captured again really quickly. It’s sloppy!
The writers who worked on the film had the idea that they need to build a world and backstory, but they did not know how to do it. They introduce story elements like why Mbonga hates Tarzan and what happened between Tarzan and his gorilla brother, but the writers only tell us this information, ignoring the screenwriting adage 'show don't tell'. The editing does not help this situation, also introducing and dropping storylines and showing flashbacks for the sake of it.
The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams deserves a mention, using African drums and percussion throughout to give The Legend of Tarzan a distinctive sound. Even more impressive considering Gregson-Williams' career has been working mostly on Adam Sandler films.
The Legend of Tarzan has received some harsh film reviews, but in reality it is a perfectly entertaining adventure film that we do not see much of these days. It's a fun little throwback and the positives outweighs the negatives.