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New Release Review - THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic hero arrives on screen for the umpteenth time.







Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: David Yates

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Christoph Waltz



With multiple onscreen animal deaths and African tribesmen gunned down like Mexicans in a Sam Peckinpah western, it's an unfathomably grim summer 'blockbuster', so nasty and unpleasant it makes Cannibal Holocaust look like The Jungle Book. Darkest Africa has rarely been so dark, and summer blockbuster season has rarely been so dour.



Ever since he appeared in serial form in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation Tarzan has been embedded in Western popular culture, spanning dozens of big and small screen adaptations. Yet, with the possible exception of Disney's animated 1999 production, I suspect few have ever watched a Tarzan movie, and fewer still are familiar with Burroughs' text. So why does Hollywood still think Tarzan is a viable property? I guess brand name familiarity is the driving force, but in 2016, is anyone still interested in this brand?

This latest version pulls a Batman Begins, reinventing the tale in dark and gritty fashion. That's right, a story about a man raised by anthropomorphic apes gets a dark and gritty reboot; that's like reinventing Doctor Dolittle as a medical drama.




Thankfully, save for a few flashbacks, we're spared the origin story. What we do get are some sub-Terrence Malick wispy shots of the young Tarzan hanging out with his simian family, the camera lurking behind CG foliage in an attempt to obscure how silly the premise is. Following the same path as Zack Snyder's Superman, this is Tarzan the Ape Man of Steel, a Boys' Own adventure tale rendered insufferable in its attempts to be taken seriously. Hollywood no longer makes straight up adult drama, so instead children's stories get butchered to keep grownups happy, like how Christmas pantomimes feature half naked glamour models; something for the Dads in the audience.


In adapting a product of a crueller, colonial age, the filmmakers struggle to give us a Tarzan for supposedly more enlightened times. They let us know from the pre-credits sequence just whom the villains are - white European colonialists, though to avoid alienating the lucrative large markets of Britain or France, they've opted to make the baddies Belgian; better to lose a potential 10 million cinema-goers than 65 million.


Head meanie is Christoph Waltz's (who else to play an evil Central European?) Captain Rom, sent to the Congo by the nasty King Leopold to enslave the natives and steal their diamonds. He's introduced with a close-up of rosary beads wrapped around his fist, a ballsy image for a Hollywood wannabe blockbuster, but one representative of European imperialism. Within minutes he's strangling a native with said rosary, as if we didn't get the message. When his soldiers are wiped out by an evil tribe (you can tell which Africans are good and which are bad by how dark their skin is), Rom strikes a deal with its leader, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), whose son was killed at the hands of Tarzan - Rom will bring Tarzan to him in exchange for diamond mining rights.




Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is now living in London under his birth name of John Clayton, when he receives an invitation from King Leopold to travel to the Congo. Initially refusing, he changes his mind when US envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) tells him of the Belgians' plan to enslave the people of the land Tarzan once called home. The two set off to the Congo, with Tarzan's wife Jane (Margot Robbie) in tow. Upon arriving, they reacquaint themselves with the good tribe (the light-skinned ones), but soon come under assault from Rom and his army, who kidnap a bunch of tribespeople, along with Jane.


Yes, despite whatever tripe you've heard from interviews with Robbie about how her Jane is some sort of feminist icon, she's nothing more than wet bait in a tight white dress, existing simply to be rescued by Tarzan. She does backchat when Rom's men make rape jokes (yes, in a Tarzan movie), and mocks Rom, implying he may have been abused by the priest who gave him his lethal rosary beads (try explaining that one to Little Johnny), but she's basically Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard without the wit. The Johnny Weismuller Tarzan series may be considered problematic today, but Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane was an actual character.


As for Jackson's Williams, for all the guff about him being an emancipated slave given a position of power, the movie reduces him to Tarzan's comedic black sidekick, a 2016 update of the sort of character Mantan Moreland or Willie Best might have played in the '30s. A 'comic' moment concerning gorilla fellatio may be the low point of his career.




Tarzan himself is the most boring rendition of the character ever to hit the screen. The movie never satisfyingly explores how being raised in the jungle gives him an advantage over the European intruders; his skill set seems to consist of vine-swinging and the ability to beat the lard out of anyone that gets in his way. When we finally hear his iconic call, it's obscured by distance, Waltz remarking smugly "It's not how I imagined it. It sounds...better", in a dig at the Weismuller movies, as if this latest version is somehow superior and has won over generations of adventure movie fans.


It's impossible to decipher what kind of audience this is aimed at. It's certainly not for kids. With multiple onscreen animal deaths and African tribesmen gunned down like Mexicans in a Sam Peckinpah western, it's an unfathomably grim summer 'blockbuster', so nasty and unpleasant it makes Cannibal Holocaust look like The Jungle Book. Darkest Africa has rarely been so dark, and summer blockbuster season has rarely been so dour.

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