Film Review | Tarzan

Swing… and a miss | Slotting Tarzan in the middle of the political minefield that was the scramble for Africa is a great idea, but it was a shame to wast it on a lazy franchise non-starter ★☆☆☆☆

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
28 July 2016, 8:58am
Jungle Boogie: Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard join forces against the beasties of both the natural and civilized world in this off-key revisionist romp
Jungle Boogie: Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard join forces against the beasties of both the natural and civilized world in this off-key revisionist romp
The superhero mode has become the default pattern of most Hollywood blockbusters. More specifically, it’s the superhero with an ‘ambiguous’ or ‘complex’ origin story that favours grittiness over optimism that has won the order of the day. We owe this to the stratospheric success of Christopher Nolan’s re-jigging of the ‘Batman’ franchise: specifically the billions-raking second installment, The Dark Knight (2008) starring the freshly deceased Heath Ledger as The Joker.

Since then, several franchises have tried to replicate its success to varying degrees of competence – and among the most disastrous attempts at this was actually another movie featuring Batman: Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice, whose meandering, joyless slog left fans disappointed and critics bloodthirsty.

But while Harry Potter helmer David Yeats shouldn’t fear quite such a reckoning in his attempt to reintroduce Tarzan to the big screen, this lumbering colossus of a wannabe pulp epic leaves plenty to be desired.

In the aftermath of the Berlin Conference, the Congo is divided between Germany and Belgium. In an attempt to stem the hemorrhage of debts he’s accrued over years of irresponsible rule, the profligate Belgian monarch King Leopold II embarks on an ambitious project that aims to exploit the rich land to the full. 

Sending his stool pigeon Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), Leopold sets a suspect chain of events in motion, which – it is whispered – will result in mass slavery and a total gutting of the land. When Rom is set upon by a formidable band of tribesmen led by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou), he offers the respected indigenous leader the one thing he wants most of all, in exchange of gems. Rom promises that he will bring him ‘Tarzan’: Mbonga’s mortal enemy. 

No damsel: Margot Robbie as Jane
No damsel: Margot Robbie as Jane
‘Tarzan’, however, is currently languishing in London, settled into his reclaimed role as Lord John Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) and leagues away – both physically and spiritually – from his youth as the wild child turned King of the Jungle. When Rom’s offer snakes its way back to London – under the guise of a diplomatic invitation that would be of benefit to both Belgian and British governments – Greystoke refuses to play along, reasoning that ‘Tarzan’ – now something of a cult celebrity – is dead and buried. This comes much to the chagrin of his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who is eager to revisit the jungle in which they first met, and to check in with long-standing locals who are like family to them. 

But when the American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) informs Greystoke of his suspicions that there might be more to the political invitation than meets the eye, the trio take the trip to the Congo, but are determined to forge their own path, far from the nefarious Rom’s itinerary.

Directing a script penned by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, Yeats appears to get off on the wrong foot and never quite establish his balance. Working with thoroughly wooden performances from Skarsgard (more eye candy than anything else) and Waltz (who looks like he’s phoning in yet another Continental Villain role), Yeats barely manages to get some juice out of the inimitable Jackson and the otherwise capable Robbie. 

“But we didn’t come here for Oscar-winning performances”, you say. Well, the same shoddiness applies to what should be the film’s most primodial – pardon the pun – pleasures. Rumours of the film running over budget are substantiated by the lackluster CGI work we see on screen – which drains any action sequence of all its energy and impact. Atavistic thrills should be the name of the game with a Tarzan movie, but when the animal fights feel more Donkey Kong than The Revenant, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.

Slotting Tarzan in the middle of the political minefield that was the scramble for Africa is a great idea. It’s a shame that it’s wasted on yet another lazy franchise non-starter. 

Do yourself a favour, and take any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original Tarzan novels as your next beach read. Unlike Yeats – who splices in flashbacks when you least want them, and who appears to have lost all sense of dramatic pacing – Burroughs knew how to spin a good yarn.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...