Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man has been around in print for a bit more than a century now, and has been a screen staple for nearly as long, the initial adaptation with beefy Elmo Lincoln appearing in 1918. Most of the Tarzan movies since then have been low-budget efforts, though there have been occasional exceptions: the initial MGM Johnny Weissmuller pictures, starting in 1932, were prestige productions, and Hugh Hudson’s 1984 “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” tried for epic status. More often, though, the jungle hero has been subjected to laughable treatment in features like MGM’s 1959 fiasco “Tarzan, the Ape Man” with Denny Miller, and the similarly-titled 1981 abomination that actor-turned-director John Derek fashioned as a vehicle for his wife Bo, who played Jane (with hapless Miles O’Keefe in support as a speechless Tarzan), along with a succession of junky television series.
The latest resuscitation, a big-budget effort crammed with CGI effects, is one of the ambitious ones, played under David Yates’s sober direction with a degree of solemnity that shouts its aspirations to importance by placing Burroughs’ character into the struggle against the brutalization of the people of central Africa during the establishment of Belgian King Leopold II’s exploitative Congo Free State in the late 1880s. That might be a laudable idea, but in the event it plays pulpish havoc with history (as much as the recent “X-Men” movies have done) while turning Tarzan himself into a curiously pale reflection of his former self.
Oddly, moreover, while aiming for grandeur Yates’s film proves little different, in terms of plot, from the most recent incarnation of the ape man, 1998’s chintzy “Tarzan and the Lost City” with Casper Van Dien, in which Tarzan went back to Africa from England to thwart a scheme by a nasty villain to capture a legendary city’s riches and mystical power. Here, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is enjoying the civilized life in England as Lord Greystoke, the happy husband of beautiful Jane (Margot Robbie), but is lured back to the jungle at the invitation of King Leopold and the instance of the British government, to determine whether the Empire’s investment in the Congo, where the cash-strapped king claims to be establishing an enlightened government, would be appropriate. His reluctance to go is overcome by the prodding of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American activist who will accompany him to investigate whether reports that the natives are being enslaved are true. And naturally spunky Jane, who in this version is an American brought up in Africa, insists ion tagging along.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the mission is in fact a trap devised by the evil Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), Leopold’s right-hand man, to capture Tarzan and turn him over to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), the chief of the warriors of Opar, who seeks revenge against the ape man for killing his son. (One of many golden-hued flashbacks inserted to tell the whole story of Tarzan’s adoption by the apes, his coming of age and his meeting with Jane shows the tragic episode, which also involved the killing of Tarzan’s ape stepmother by the boy.) In return for Tarzan, the chief will allow Rom access to the fabled diamonds of Opar, with which he will be able to finance the military plan to create the brutal Congo Free State, later made notorious by Roger Casement’s reports and Joseph Conrad in “Heart of Darkness.”
Tarzan barely escapes Rom’s initial ambush with Williams’ help, but Jane is carted off as a captive to lure her husband into another trap. (Poor Robbie is reduced to the level of damsel-in-distress for virtually the entire movie, while Waltz again is given the part of the ultra-smooth villain. You can tell he’s really evil because he wears an incongruous white suit and hat to go along with his snide smirk and is constantly fingering a rosary he can also use as a weapon.) So Tarzan and Williams are off in hot pursuit to save her and foil Rom’s scheme, which requires turning the first installment of diamonds over to a British financier. During the chase Tarzan will have to face off against the current alpha-ape and then against Mbonga; in neither confrontation does he do particularly well (no better than he did in Rom’s initial ambush)—his years in England must have left him rusty. It’s not until the last act, when he reenergizes his Dr. Dolittle powers to raise an animal army to help him, that he proves his old mettle. But even then he doesn’t don the traditional loincloth. Instead he does battle—in a last act melee overloaded with messy CGI—bare-chested but wearing what looks like a tight, pre-distressed pair of Land’s End khakis.
There’s actual history behind this scenario—central Africa was being subjugated by Leopold’s forces at the time, and Rom was one of his chief lieutenants; the actual Williams also visited the area, and in 1890 published an open letter decrying what was happening there. But the implication that the process was somehow foiled at that time is nonsense. The Belgian king’s exploitation of the area (and the resultant genocide) continued well into the twentieth century.
Moreover, Yates and his writers tiptoe around what is now the elephant in the room for any Tarzan adaptation—the idea that Africans need the intervention of a heroic white man to save them. To counter the implicit suggestion of racism, they surround the ape man not only with noble natives who prove as courageous as he is, but turn Williams into a co-hero, slogging through the jungle with Tarzan and performing as important a function in the defeat of Rom as he does. The fantasy element is accentuated by Jackson’s performance, which barely avoids being a complete anachronism in depicting the nineteenth-century man in terms that would be more in line with a street-smart twenty-first-century African-American.
Still, as retrograde as it is, the Tarzan story could have worked as effective big-screen spectacle if Yates and his collaborators had brought a sense of fun to the material. But while they get the spectacle mostly right—up until the big, chaotic finale the CGI is reasonably good, and Henry Braham’s cinematography gives the widescreen African vistas a lush look—the film lacks both excitement and wit. The scenes of Tarzan’s hand-to-hand combat are sloppily staged and poorly edited by Mark Day; they’re gloomy rather than exhilarating. And what humor the script offers consists of puerile throwaway lines and exaggerated reaction shots of Jackson. It would also have helped if the actor playing Tarzan had possessed some charisma. As his previous work has shown, Skarsgard is a talented guy, and he’s certainly buffed up for the part. But his Tarzan is a stiff, inexpressive fellow; it seems to hurt his face to flash even the slightest smile, and his dialogue delivery is flat. Though he loosens up a bit when he morphs from Greystoke to Tarzan, it’s not by much.
Ultimately Yates’s film, while handsome in every respect (including its leading man), utterly fails in its attempt to turn Burroughs’ jungle lord into a modern-day action hero. It’s a ponderous, self-important bore that suggests that Tarzan is one pulp character whom time has passed irretrievably by.