Every generation, it seems, tries to remake Tarzan in its own image. No matter how obsolete or politically incorrect Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation is thought to have become, someone dimly remembers the money Tarzan made in the past and tries to make him a moneymaker again. This newest attempt at a live-action Tarzan seems to be doing better than the most recent previous efforts, judging at least by the box-office reports. Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad's screenplay wisely leaves Tarzan in the past; if anything, they backdate his career somewhat, if you assume that Burroughs set the present-day events of his original novel in the year he published it, 1912. The Legend of Tarzan is set in 1890, by which time John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has returned from Africa to claim his heritage as Lord Greystoke and become a media celebrity, to his own apparent embarrassment. Whatever actually happened in Africa, and despite Clayton's current fluency in English, "Me Tarzan, You Jane" apparently is a thing in 1890 England, if not the wider English-speaking world, as American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) bluntly reminds the young lord. Williams explains to Greystoke that King Leopold of Belgium has invited the former Tarzan to his Congo Free State in order to publicize his humanitarian anti-slavery efforts by exploiting Greystoke's celebrity. It's only when Williams privately adds that Leopold's publicity is a fraud, and that the Belgian is doing the opposite of what he claims, that Greystoke decides to accept the invitation in order to facilitate the American's own investigation. Of course, Tarzan can't return to Africa without Jane (Margot "Harley Quinn" Robbie) demanding to accompany him. After all, according to this film's major retcon, Jane Porter, a missionary's daughter, was born and raised in Africa and may be on better terms with the natives than Tarzan himself.
All of this is very convenient to King Leopold's agent in the Congo, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has been told by an African chief (Djimoun Hounsou, increasingly typed as a bad guy) that he can have all the diamonds he wants from fabled Opar for the bankrupt King on the sole condition that he deliver Tarzan for some sort of vengeance. It looks like an easy transaction when Rom promptly captures Tarzan, but when Williams and some local tribesmen manage to free the ape man the Belgian has to fall back on Plan B: kidnap Jane and depend on Tarzan to pursue him to the chief's territory. Plan B takes longer but works better. The only problem is that the chief doesn't get his revenge, though the audience learns why he wants it. Instead, Tarzan takes his revenge on Rom with help from approximately all the animals in Africa....
George Washington Williams and Leon Rom were real people, Williams being one of the first to publicize King Leopold's real-life atrocities in Africa while Rom got away with his real crimes against humanity and died in a Brussels bed at age 75. Once upon a time I thought the Williams story would make a good movie; my idea was to fictionalize it slightly by giving him a young Joseph Conrad as his sidekick in the exploration of the real heart of darkness. People who know Williams' real role in history seem to resent the new Tarzan movie the most, since Williams has been written, and is played by Jackson, largely as comic relief to the ape man. The character is given some moments of introspection, but Jackson is at least a generation too old for the role and clearly was hired to play "Samuel L. Jackson" rather than any historical figure. It may be the worst performance I've ever seen him give, and his line, "I wasn't going to lick his nuts!" -- I'll spare you the context -- may have killed the movie dead on the spot. By comparison, Christoph Waltz could never be worse than he was in Spectre, and as Rom he redeems himself a little simply by not talking so much. His is a carefully calibrated physical performance, reminding you of how menacing his Blofeld seemed while silently sitting in a chair, before he opened his mouth. His Rom is an introverted, fussy figure with a strong hint of paedophiliac priestly attention in his background, not overly courageous yet eerily cool in all circumstances until the very end. He has a certain 19th century gravitas about him, as does much of Legend's often-impressive production design. As for the subject of the legend, Skarsgård proves a passable Tarzan, introducing a new note of reluctance to a hero who thought he had left "Tarzan" behind for good without regret. He seems to idealize the jungle less than Jane does, his first though on being invited to return being, "It's hot." Despite whatever reticence on his or the studio's part that kept him in trousers rather than a loincloth -- could it be that our more progressive, inclusive age is more fearful of the gay gaze? -- Skarsgård is all right in jungle mode and as decent an action hero as the film's limitations allow. And as for Robbie, whose make-or-break career moment comes next month in Suicide Squad, her Jane remains a damsel in distress despite all the character's protestations to the contrary.
Legend's main limitations, even given Jackson's terrible performance, are technical. We can blame the writers for the constant intrusion of flashbacks to the origin story, most of which seem redundant or at least unoriginal for an old-time like me. It's hard to believe that not so long ago Hollywood felt antsy about having lots of flashbacks in movies, since movies often seem compulsively and pointlessly non-linear today. The film's biggest failing has to be blamed on director David Yates. He directed the last Harry Potter films, and on the evidence of those and this it seems fair to say that he can't direct action to save his life. That's a bit of a problem when you're directing what's essentially an action movie. The Deathly Hollows films gave us numbing repetitions of people waving wands at one another, but that could be blamed on the source material. The Legend of Tarzan gives us hopelessly choppy action scenes, with the action too often shot too close up, or else ridiculous scenes of Tarzan (and occasional friends) leaping from insane heights and infallibly catching vines that carry them over incalculable distances. And then we get the CGI stampede, a purely gratuitous spectacle that leaves you wondering where all the animals ended up -- in the sea? -- and whether it was really necessary to thwart the villain. There's the core of a good idea at the heart of the movie, and the production design to back it up, but the execution too often fails to live up to it all. If this film's apparent success inspires another try, let's hope the filmmakers dare to be a little more fantastic, while remaining grounded in history, and -- more importantly -- a little more unapologetically savage.