“The Legend of Tarzan” begins with the title swinger (played by Alexander Skarsgard) already back in London society after having spent his formative years in the African jungle. He and Jane (Margot Robbie) are married; he’s a world-famous celebrity; and he’s still getting used to things like sticking out his pinkie when he drinks tea (which is the kind of hogwash he didn’t have to put up with when he was an ape, I’m just sayin’). Oh, and don’t call him Tarzan. He’s John Clayton now.
So the filmmakers have chosen to skip the customary origin story, a laudable impulse in the Age of Reboots. (We do see flashback snippets of Tarzan’s jungle upbringing.) But the story they tell instead is a dull, lumbering thing that presumes familiarity with — and fondness for — the Tarzan mythos and doesn’t bother trying to earn it. Written by Adam Cozad (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) and Craig Brewer (“Black Snake Moan”), directed by David Yates (who made the last four Harry Potters), this version squanders an excellent cast and even manages to make a shirtless Alexander Skarsgard boring.
Tarzan returns to the jungle at the request of an American diplomat named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s concerned about possible slave labor in the Belgian Congo. As it happens, a snide Belgian supervillain named Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who carries a string of weaponized rosary beads, has been deployed by an angry Congolese tribesman to lure Tarzan back anyway. He does this, naturally, by abducting Jane, who’s every bit the superhero’s spouse (i.e., damsel in distress) despite having more personality than Tarzan does. Samuel L. Jackson’s job, as comic relief, is to accompany Tarzan into the jungle and say things like, “I ain’t eating no damn ants!” Jackson does this with characteristic zeal, albeit with fewer uses of the M-F word.
When Tarzan does the things that make him Tarzan — swinging from vines, punching gorillas, bossing animals around — the film works just fine. The problem is that those moments are scarce, replaced with scenes of interminable jungle travel and Christoph Waltz twirling his mustache as he tries to raise an army of mercenaries. A viewer who didn’t already know and like Tarzan would have a hard time explaining, after seeing the movie, what the character’s appeal is. Warner Bros. has been trying to make a Tarzan movie since at least 2003. The fact that no one came up with a good idea for a story in all that time suggests that maybe telling a good story wasn’t one of the primary motives.
C (1 hr., 49 min.; )