Whatever you think of the new screen version of Tarzan, and reaction will likely be polarizing, you have to admit that Alexander Skarsgard brings his A-game — mind, heart and body beautiful. He vine-swings across the jungle, mostly minus a loincloth but with a lot more on his mind than hooking up with Jane (a spirited, sexy Margot Robbie). The Legend of Tarzan is bursting with big ideas: animal v human, exploration v exploitation, primitivism v civilization. It’s a heavy thematic load for a single movie to handle — especially this one, which nearly collapses from its burden. But it’s hard to fault director David Yates, who captained the last four Harry Potter movies, for having ambition.
The script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer keeps jamming things in. On first meeting, Tarzan is not Tarzan — he’s John Clayton III, the fifth earl of Greystoke, a 1880’s British gentleman down to his manicured fingertips. In flashbacks, we’re reminded of his backstory as an orphan raised by apes in Africa. But Yates first shows us the lord of the manner who has put his Tarzan days behind him for 10 years and is now settled down with wife Jane. It’s duty that calls. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, oozing menace), the envoy to the King of Belgium, tricks him back to the Congo on a humanitarian mission. Jane goes along, as does ex-American soldier George Washington Williams (Samuel l. Jackson) who smells a rat involving slave traders, diamond thieves, and a revenge plot against Tarzan.
Too much? You bet, especially when the whole shebang degenerates into a chase to find Jane. It’s one thing to add a contemporary spin to material that Edgar Rice Burroughs cooked up a century ago, but Jackson is pure Pulp Fiction. And Jane is every inch the modern American woman, ready to crotch drop Rom for holding her captive as a plot to get Tarzan in his clutches.
The character has figured in over 200 films and TV shows, from Johnny Weismuller’s jungle adventures in the 1930s to the Disney animated feature; the closest ancestor to this latest version would be Hugh Hudson’s tony 1984 take Greystoke. Skarsgard effectively shows the struggle of a man caught between two worlds. Are you jarred by some of the anachronistic acting? Troubled that the animals are all digital? Pissed that you’ve seen it all before? At least it’s watchable. In summer, baby, that’s high praise.