In Warner Bros.’ attempt at reintroducing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous pulp hero, Tarzan, the feral man turned aristocrat-cum-adventurer, to a modern audience, Samuel L. Jackson plays a version of George Washington Williams, a very real Civil War soldier who fought in a few of its terminal battles, and who, in 1889, journeyed to the Congo to scope out rumors about the Belgian king Léopold II’s gruesome abuses of the Congolese (which, surprise, turned out to be true). If there is justice in the world, the studio will gift Samuel L. Jackson’s character in The Legend of Tarzan with his own spin-off series.
But there really isn’t—justice in this world, that is. Which is a shame, because Jackson starts out in The Legend of Tarzan as a delightfully expected two-fisted badass. There’s a great shot during a nighttime action scene where Jackson, a revolver in each hand, steps into an empty frame wearing an expression that can only be described as classic Jackson. Most guys would say, “I’m gonna kick your ass” to let you know your ass is about to be kicked—Jackson lets you know by the glint in his eye. He’s good fun as Williams, at least until the film turns over the driver’s keys to Alexander Skarsgård, playing Tarzan, aka John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke himself, and all the story’s sensational promise dissolves. Amazing how a movie star can change the timbre of the movie he’s starring in for the worst just by walking on screen. You want the movie that you thought Jackson was in, and not the one Skarsgård ends up leading.
Skarsgård, for what it’s worth, isn’t the biggest problem dogging The Legend of Tarzan, though he’s pretty sadly miscast. He’s a great actor, but he isn’t the kind of actor movies like this need: He doesn’t wear his charisma on his physicality, and unlike a Dwayne Johnson or a Chris Evans, he doesn’t have a natural persona fit for blockbusting and spectacle. He also doesn’t have a good script with which to work, or a good stage on which to posture. He doesn’t even have a finished stage: The Legend of Tarzan looks incomplete at its basest FX level, as though WB knew they had a half-baked product on their hands but chose to bear down on their targeted release date like a mad bull rushing a flapping muleta. The Summer of 2016 has seen more than its share of turkeys and misfires—and now it’s found its king.
Outside of Jackson, very little about The Legend of Tarzan works, and Jackson, like Skarsgård, is severely let down by the material he’s been given. The film cherry-picks bits and pieces of Tarzan’s history and iconography, and tosses them into a basket with an ambivalent shrug about how they fit together. Instead of telling an origin story wholesale, director David Yates and screenwriters Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad begin with a linear narrative that they interrupt repeatedly with flashbacks to Tarzan’s youth, to his first encounter with his future wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie, great like Jackson and equally underserved), and, eventually, to a major dramatic moment on which the film’s plot hinges for most of its running time before being acknowledged and unceremoniously abandoned in a single sequence.
And oh, what a plot. Remember Mr. Williams’ trip to the Congo Free State? That’s the basis for The Legend of Tarzan’s conflict. King Léopold has sent his servant, Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), to the region to protect his ruler’s interests, which he does by manipulating Tarzan into the clutches of Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), Tarzan’s ancient enemy. This takes some doing—Tarzan has been living the aristocratic life in jolly old England for nearly a decade—but thanks to the ingenuity of contrivance, we get there. Whatever. Yates tangles The Legend of Tarzan to its detriment and revises history as he pleases, but if he’d made an exciting, engaging movie, none of that would matter. It’s easy to pardon a film’s foibles if it keeps your interest.
So we can’t really pardon The Legend of Tarzan, which disposes of its most interesting idea—that civilized society might indeed embrace a person like Tarzan as a celebrity—moments after introducing it, and also treats choice as an inevitability instead of as a source for tension. Clayton returns to Africa because it’s a movie and he has to; Williams follows him, panting and huffing all the way, into the jungle because he has to; Jane is kidnapped and rendered useless because she has to be, because it’s convention, which the movie openly acknowledges in a winking, nudging, self-aware beat Yates probably meant to be funny. (It isn’t, but “A” for effort.) Think of Brewer and Cozad’s screenplay as a chore list instead of a blueprint for visual storytelling. That’s the viewing experience of The Legend of Tarzan in a nutshell.
There are other troubles, socially oblivious troubles, that sink the film further into the morass with each step it takes. Yates tries his damnedest to blunt the racist and sexist undertones of Burroughs’ original work, and he makes a spectacular fool of himself in the process. The Legend of Tarzan isn’t less enlightened than its progenitors, but it arguably isn’t any moreso, either. You can’t love The Legend of Tarzan, regardless—not for Jackson, not for Robbie, not for anything. Who knew watching a man punch an ape could be so boring?
Director: David Yates
Writers: Craig Brewer, Adam Cozad
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou
Release Date: July 1, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.