Director: David Yates. Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Chaplin. 12A cert, 110 mins
The Legend of Tarzan is myth wrestling with history in the mud, and eventually shaking hands for an awkward truce.
The myth is that of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vine-vaulting Lord of the Apes, raised in the jungle, rescued back to England, and – in this film’s extrapolation – returning to settle some stray old scores. The history is what Belgium was doing to the Congo in 1884: an infinitely darker saga, not oft-told until this century, of slave exploitation and massacre on an industrial scale under King Leopold II.
It’s brave, theoretically, of this $180 million production to wade into the latter horrors, which it does with all kinds of fanfare. The baddies are very much the Belgians, the victims Congolese villagers, and Tarzan finds himself recast as a ripped white saviour winning the allegiance of a furious tribal chieftain (Djimon Hounsou).
If there’s a revisionist blockbuster to which this would-be high-minded epic is comparable, it’s Johnny Depp's 2013 flop The Lone Ranger – words to strike abject terror into Warner Bros’ hearts.
Alas, this looks much more hastily thrown together than The Lone Ranger, and the juxtapositions in its story keep backfiring horribly. One minute Tarzan and real-life lawyer-activist-historian George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) are swishing their way onto a railroad truck, then they're smack up against a carriage-load of desperate, shackled slaves.
Myth pales and all but crumbles with this vast weight of real-world misery stacked against it. And David Yates’s direction doesn’t have the game, or gumption, to lift us up and out.
Clearly incredible workout regime aside, Alexander Skarsgård’s photoshopped-looking Tarzan trudges through as if mid-audition: he’s locked down a schooled English baritone, but struggles to welcome us inside his own story. This is the trouble with pulling back so earnestly for context – and with confining the hero’s early years to grim, smudgy flashbacks which keep barging in way past the hour mark.
Immediacy is lacking, especially in the scenes where a pre-verbal Tarzan communes with the ape-family we barely get to know, and meets his Jane (Margot Robbie) for a scratch-and-sniff first date.
Yates, director of the last four Harry Potters, has two Quentin Tarantino icons at his beck and call: Jackson, who’s here to decry the gutting of a continent, and Christoph Waltz, who is – surprise, surprise – here to plunge the trowel in. As Leon Rum, Leopold’s linen-suited envoy on a diamond quest, Waltz whips out all his usual winkingly sadistic politesse, but his villainy is ham on a stick (or shtick), whichever way you slice it.
The freshest presence, by a long chalk, is Margot Robbie’s Jane. Her captivity on Rum’s Conradian steamboat is far more scrappy fun than Tarzan’s episodic scuffles with digital superfauna – partly because these creatures rarely look real enough, falling way short of their recent Jungle Book counterparts.
Robbie lights up her scenes with the much more special effect of raw personality. This Jane comes out swinging, knows how to flash a deadly smile and handle herself. She has much better chemistry with the natives than her brooding boyfriend, too.
There’s much jubilant hilltop ululation when Mr Goldilocks flexes his muscles, but maybe it’s Jane they’re all cheering.