I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Legend of Tarzan

tn_legendoftarzanI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: THANK YOU studios for continuing to make these expensive old-timey adventure character movies even though they are always financially disastrous. I for one appreciate the gesture!

Of this type of movie, Gore Verbinski’s THE LONE RANGER is far and away the most entertaining and masterful. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is closer to the level of the last major Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation, Andrew Stanton’s JOHN CARTER. It’s a little slicker than that one, but also a little more normal since it takes place on Earth with Earth type animals. Yet it’s not what I expected at all. It knows that you already know the basics about Tarzan, so it tries to walk that delicate line of giving you a different spin without sacrificing the classic Tarzan shit you expect. It also tries to capture some of the feel of stories written a hundred years ago while looking at matters of race, gender and culture with today’s eyes. And it does these things fairly successfully.

In the opening we meet Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, THE GREEN HORNET), a cruel Belgian mercenary searching for the fabled diamonds of Opar, and Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou, AMISTAD, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE), a menacing cheetah-masked Chief willing to trade the diamonds for the capture of his greatest enemy, name-withheld-but-cut-to-the-title-THE-LEGEND-OF-TARZAN®.

But then we go to Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard, MELANCHOLIA) and he’s not a shirtless dude swinging through the vines. We are already later in his life, when he’s an official Lord and living in a castle in England wearing fancy clothes. He’s hearing a pitch from Belgians who want him to take them to the Congo, so we don’t hear him talk for a while. And then when he does, he doesn’t say “Me Tarzan, you representative of King Leopold,” he is actually quite eloquent. And when American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, FRESH) brings up the Lord’s past as “Tarzan the Lord of the Apes” he insists that his name is John Clayton III, street name Lord Greystoke.

mp_legendoftarzanWilliams is a civil war veteran, ex-mercenary and now politician with a secret agenda to stop the slave trade that he believes is going on in the Congo. That’s how he convinces Tarzan to return to the Motherland, and why they’re partners throughout the movie. I’m not joking when I say that this Tarzan is always referred to as John. So I had no choice but to keep thinking of it as APE MAN WITH A VENGEANCE. John Tarzan is forced to run around with Samuel L. Jackson, riding on top of a train, jumping off of things, etc. because of a guy whose family member he killed long ago.

And some of the best movie magic in the whole thing is that I totally accepted Jackson with hair.

There’s a weird contradiction in our popular culture right now: on one hand there is a movement to have movies be more inclusive of different races, genders and etc., on the other hand everything has to be based on an old popular brand, which means mostly things created a long time ago, which means they’re mostly about white men. TARZAN is a classic pulp tale that comes off a little different to a citizen of the 21st century because it’s a white hero in Africa and some of the bad guys are savage African natives.

I’m not sure you could get around Tarzan being a white dude shipwrecked in a foreign land, but you can improve the depiction of the natives and his relationship with them. In LEGEND, Jane (Margot Robbie, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) grew up in an African village, she is a member of the community, and it’s basically a family reunion when she returns. Although we need more movies specifically about Africans and African Americans, not about their stories told through white characters, I think we should still respect the sentiments of a movie like this in which the white heroes love and respect people from vastly different cultures as family. Although John is the main character he never acts like he’s their leader or anything. He’s an old friend, they have mutual respect, they work together using their own talents and resources.

And, I mean, you gotta figure his apeness is more exotic to them than his whiteness. Getting over racial differences is nothing after you get over that he talks to animals and does that weird yell and does circus acrobatics way up high in the trees. That is one eccentric dude.

The issues of race are placed in context with American history. Williams talks about his pride in fighting in the civil war, but also his shame about the Indian Wars. I didn’t realize this until reading up on the movie afterwards, but George Washington Williams is an actual historical figure who really did fight in those wars and then travel to the Congo to expose abuses of the Congolese by the Belgians under King Leopold. But without the aid of an ape man. I wish Warner Brothers would sink even more money into a series of financially unsuccessful sequels, but then I’d want to see this team back, and in reality Williams died of tuberculosis while returning from the trip depicted here.

The effort to modernize Jane seems a little more self conscious to me, but it may just be because when Rom kidnaps her and tells her to scream she asks “Like a damsel?” A little on the nose. When she does get to go into action it’s more effective than when she’s just talking tough.

John returns to the hood and reverts to his old ways, including running across branches, elaborate digital vine-swinging, and literally butting heads with dangerous animals, who to him are just the kids he grew up with. The animals don’t talk, but he somehow communicates with them, and for the most part they’re realistically animated much like the modern PLANET OF THE APES series.

Although we’ve seen Waltz play a much better villain in a movie one time, this is one of the rare non-Tarantino roles where he doesn’t feel out of place in the movie. He reminds me of the villains in THE LONE RANGER and the modern ZORRO movies, but scarier. And Honsou is the more interesting antagonist, the one with more layers to him.

Here’s a funny story I read: producer Jerry Weintraub was convinced that because Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller famously played Tarzan in the ’30s and ’40s, 18-time-Olympic-gold-medalist Michael Phelps was the man to play him now. But then he saw two minutes of the Saturday Night Live hosted by Phelps and dropped that whole idea. I like Skarsgard in the role and I bet he also would do better on Saturday Night Live. And there is no swimming in this movie. So it was a good choice.

Skarsgard is all muscled out and holds his shoulders like a gorilla. At first he’s more of a convincing presence than a compelling one, but the more he matter-of-factly shows Williams the life of a former Lord of the Apes, explaining the way of the animals, the more I like him. The main thing that won me over to this movie is that there are two major confrontations that are resolved in more interesting ways than expected. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want one of them spoiled.

When John brings Williams through ape territory he explains that he now has to fight a huge gorilla that was once his brother but now considers him a deserter. This is the scene with the money shot from the trailer, of Tarzan and a gorilla flying toward each other in slow motion. I was wondering how the hell they were gonna convince me that this guy could beat up a gorilla. Instead, he gets a few hits in, including a Tony Jaa style elbow to the head, but the gorilla beats the living shit out of him. And he’s laying there moaning and broken and the gorilla calms down, gives him a little shove, and leaves. Like, It’s over. You manned up. I got my aggression out. We’re good. Tarzan knew he was gonna get hammered, and he did it anyway, because that’s what he had to do. And now they’re brothers again. There’s alot of fight brotherhood in this movie!

The conflicts build to a climactic battle that involves all of John Tarzan’s friends. Although I would’ve liked a more excessive version of this idea it was enough to put a big grin on my face of the exact type I hope to have when I go see this type of movie.

The director is David Yates, who did the last four HARRY POTTER movies and the upcoming spin-off one. I thought he did a fine job on those, and he brings those skills here, giving a grounded look and feel to a fantastical special effects world. The script is credited to a guy named Adam Cozad but also Craig Brewer, the director of HUSTLE & FLOW, BLACK SNAKE MOAN and FOOTLOOSE who had at one point intended to direct. I have read that both were hired by Warner Brothers to write competing scripts, so I imagine they merged them together in some way, but I have also read that the film stays close to Brewer’s version, and it seems to fit his descriptions in interviews about what he planned to do with the movie.

Anyway, thanks again Warner Brothers, your generosity is appreciated and nobody can say you don’t give back.

p.s. I’m not well versed in the history of Tarzan, but someone who is is Joe Lansdale, who wrote the Hap and Leonard book I’m currently reading but also Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, based on a fragment left behind by Burroughs. So I was interested in what he had to say about this movie on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 1.02.14 AM

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 13th, 2016 at 9:24 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “The Legend of Tarzan”

  1. ‘I’m wondering if anybody’s interested in that Tarzan movie. I’m so interested in Tarzan right now. I don’t know why. I want to know why we keep telling the Tarzan story….I wonder what that’s about. It makes me think so many different things, like why we are so fascinated with Tarzan.’ – Brad Neely

    I agree with Brad Neely. I (nor, ostensibly, he) don’t think it’s bad or wrong that we keep telling this story; I just want to know why. Beyond it being awesome.

  2. Batman: The Animated Podcast has a couple of good interviews with Joe R. Lansdale. They obviously focus on his writing for the animated series, but it also goes into some of his other writing:

    https://soundcloud.com/btas-podcast/27-read-my-lips-joe-r-lansdale-amanda-meadows-geoffrey-golden?in=btas-podcast/sets/batman-the-animated-podcast

    Also, unrelated to this, but I just learned it yesterday and thought it was interesting: Donald Westlake wrote the initial treatment for Tomorrow Never Dies?

    RIP, Donald E. Westlake, prolific author and would-be 007 screenwriter

    Prolific mystery author Donald E. Westlake, author of numerous novels and five screenplays, passed away the other day at age 75. What hasn’t been written much is how Westlake almost got pulle…

  3. Sorry about that, I don’t know why the site decided a Staypuft sized block of white was appropriate for my link.

  4. Thanks Vern! I’ve gone from having 0% interest in this movie to 85% in the space of one review.

  5. I really enjoyed this movie as well. I think a lot of the negative critical reaction was a knee jerk reaction to the antiquated source material, not giving the movie credit for its effort to update it.

    One thing that struck me as odd is that Tarzan himself has no real arc in the film. It’s a bit odd. Though I did appreciate that this was not yet another tale where he is torn between his civilized life and jungle life–he seems to have reconciled and made peace with both aspects of his personality pretty well. That unique take made up for the lack of character arc to me. I almost could have done without the flashbacks entirely, as they were kind of haphazardly inserted into the film, to the point that I wondered if they were mandated and shot later, driving up the budget.

  6. This movie was boring as fuck. I walked out 25 minutes into it. Robbie and Skarsgard have 0 chemistry and their relationship is the backbone of the entire thing. Nice ape effects though.

  7. Crushinator Jones

    July 14th, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Pulp characters don’t necessarily have a character arc and I like that about them. They are more archtypical and primal than that. My favorite pulp character, Conan, always develops (or de-velops) between stories. Like, the story ends and in the next story he’s a king! I love that he develops “off-camera”.

  8. I’ve always liked the pulp heroes of the early twentieth century, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually started reading the original works by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and they’re a ton of fun. Also, as television has tried to tell longer serialized stories, I’ve come to better appreciate stories that basically hit the reset button after every adventure. I think some of the best pulp adventure storytelling I’ve come across in the last ten years was the Gray and Palmiotti run on Jonah Hex: The Comic. There are no lessons learned or a larger story arc, just one badass self-contained story after another.

    I’m glad the movie didn’t outright bomb, which I guess many people were surprised about. I’m not sure if the film did well enough to justify a sequel, but maybe it will trick the studios in trying to adapt these heroes to film “just one more time.” At the very least, I don’t want the poor box office performance of these films to derail a possible King Conan film.

  9. It’s nice to hear good things about this! I’m a huge fan of some of the old pulp characters, and have read my fair share of ERB over the years. Great to see Joe Lansdale give his thoughts on it as well. He is a man well-versed in Lord Greystoke, and a very fine writer himself.

    I despair of ever seeing a fair treatment of Robert Howard’s work, whether Conan, Kull or one of his many other works, but this does give me some small measure of hope.

  10. This was…OK. Started out real slow and you can tell that like ID4 2: RESURGENCE, this was cut to the bone in post and thus you have things like the miscarriage randomly mentioned and never mentioned again that may or may not have been caused or the evil tribal chief. This really wanted to be BATMAN BEGINS for Tarzan, without having to do the fucking origin story which I respect them for doing.

    Robbie and Son of Thor’s buddy Professor don’t have chemistry, which kinda hurts you in a movie that’s supposed to move because of their sexual/romantic chemistry. Can’t say the action scenes thrilled me like they’re supposed to.

    What was Waltz’s motivation/existence other than he’s evil because the movie needs him to be? (This and DEADPOOL, what’s up with movies this year about characters cracking jokes about child molestation?) Random thrown line about civilization but again, I think a lot of stuff got trimmed out in post.

    That said there is ONE scene I did dig: at the village after Tarzan and Jane show up, angry serious looking black guys show up and that’s movie language for UH OH for our white heroes but they’re actually buddies.

    Or put it another way, the one really engaging moment (which works as designed to) involved gorilla oral sex.

  11. Actually, there is one moment near the end where Tarzan briefly swims, which immediately made me laugh as I’d heard about the original plan to cast Michael Phelps. It was apparent from his Olympic interviews back in 2008 that Hollywood just wasn’t going to be in the cards for him.

    Anyway, I thoroughly loved the new film and would say it’s definitely up there with Johnny Weissmuller’s first two efforts and Gordon Scott’s final two. (One of which featured a pre-007 Connery in a supporting role.) I also echo Joe Lansdale’s sentiments and would love to see a few sequels that introduce some of the more fantastical elements of the original Tarzan novels. (My wishlist would include ant men and a lost empire!)

  12. Saw this yesterday and just loved it. I’ve always been a massive Tarzan fan, and while I was waiting for this I tried to see as many of the old movies as possible. Mainly on youtube, since most of them are pretty hard to get hold of, at least in this country. Not a big fan of the ones with Weissmuller, but from Lex Barker and upwards they’re pretty much all great. The best ones are those with Gordon Scott in the lead, but Mike Henry does a pretty good job too. The most important thing with a good Tarzan story is that it’s simple. Some bad white dudes are messing with a tribe/a doctor/a safari group and Tarzan kicks the shit out of them. Plain and simple. And this is just what Yates gets right about the newest addition. A classic Tarzan with modern effects. And speaking as a guy who’s been married for 25 years I think Skarsgård and Robbie had great chemistry.

  13. Just randomly remembered that those classic Tarzan movies really were a staple on TV when I was a kid. They were on TV all the time and then slowly disappeared, even before it became something if a no-no to show movies on TV, that were made before 1982.

    A while ago they did show one for some reason on a Sunday afternoon and I was surprised how violent that one was. Tarzan was caught by a tribe of evil pygmy and was thrown into a pit where he had to fight a monster gorilla. He killed him and hid underneath his corpse when the tribe was shooting arrows and speers at him. Later on their leader got trampled to death by an elephant. It wasn’t all graphic, but y’know, still kinda hard for such an old movie.

  14. Crushinator Jones

    July 15th, 2016 at 11:15 am

    @Zombo:

    “I despair of ever seeing a fair treatment of Robert Howard’s work, whether Conan, Kull or one of his many other works, but this does give me some small measure of hope.”

    Well Milius’s Conan had the sensibilities of Howard’s work, even if he didn’t have the ‘real’ Conan in it. Anyway, I would like to see King Conan but Arnold is too old and the humdrum 2011 film spiked the IP pretty hard. And honestly I’m not sure if “civilization is temporary and barbarism and mankind’s savagery will always triumph” is a great message for today’s world. Truly torn, because I do love the character and Howard’s stories. Rogues in the House may be one of the finest fantasy short stories ever written.

  15. I felt Milius version of Conan was a tad too soft than the version I have encountered in those wonderful comicbooks which I believe were either Dark Horse or Marvel.

  16. Probably the Marvel ones from back in the day. Those were really good. Still love old John’s Conan movie though. I grew up with that shit.

  17. Milius movie also gets brownie points for being a pretty good Kull movie even if it’s not much of a Conan one. Like Crushinator said a lot of Howard’s sensibilities still made it into that thing.

  18. @Crushinator

    I agree that Milius certainly had the best touch (so far) for Conan. The first movie had great elements, but lacked the visceral nature of REH’s best work.

    Quick aside: My favorite artist is Frank Frazetta. One of my favorite “tough guy” actors is William Smith. In a Frazetta interview I read years & years ago, when asked who he thought would make a great Conan, he replied “William Smith.”

  19. I haven’t had much interest in seeing this til I read this review. I’ll check it out. Cause…why the heck not?

    I too really enjoy the pulp heroes brought to modern movies subgenre. I have liked all the ones mentioned (Lone Ranger, John Carter, Conan) as well as a bunch of guys who finally got their day in the early to mid 90s (The Shadow, The Phantom, Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer…)

    For some reason I never quite considered Tarzan one of them. And I know why…he gets a movie about once a decade, more if you consider Asylum like cash-ins. I saw several version of Tarzan growing up, from a hokier than hokey old B&W serial to the rather dark GREYSTOKE.

    The other guys (particularly that second group that had their early 90s moment) seemed to skip several decades between mediums. My Dad told me of a creepy old radio show called THE SHADOW all the kids were captivated by back in the day…but it was dead when the 90s version came about. Same with THE PHANTOM , et all.

    Anyway, because of their relative rairity, it makes those odd revivals all the more special. The 90s SHADOW is the only SHADOW we are gonna get. Maybe an occasional pulp centric comic book, but that’s it.

    And I often, like many critics at the time, wondered WHO the target audience was for those I’ll advised but fun bits of nostalgia. I find it somewhat refreshing that Vern and some of the other commentators here share this enthusiasm for not just letting these older than dirt characters die peacefully and forgotten…but drag them out for one last stampede in the multiplex with box office and public opinion seemingly cast to the wind.

    And it did occur to me while typing that last paragraph, that it takes particularly smart, open minded and well read people to get the nostalgia for something 30-50 years before their birth. I might not have cared aboutvTHE PHANTOM, but thinking of him brings to mind a very romanticized word of baseball cards in the bicycle spokes, listening to the ball game on the radio, Big Little Books, etc. etc. etc.

    And to transport myths very specific to that time to the now dated brightly colored, early CGI early 90s is such a weird juxtopostion…that not only is it the most open minded movie viewers who seem to “get it”…its honestly only the craziest motherfuckers who even care enough to watch in the first place! You literally have to be up for anything to appreciate that subgenre.

    Sorry for rambling on what I think might be a tangent. Insomnia is to blame for this post for sure. But thanks Vern for reminding me that even though we get a Tarzan every few years it seems, he is one of these cool primordeal heroes that each new version is as much about the character about about the times that the movie was made.

  20. I liked this one. It has its issues, but overall, I enjoyed it. I’m a fan of the books, so I HATE that whole, “Me Tarzan, you Jane” portrayal. I was really happy they did not go down that road. I think the biggest issue with this one was that they weren’t able to straddle the lines very well. Like, the line between making Tarzan a badass, motherfucker and not making him over the top ridiculous. Like Vern, I was happy that they didn’t have him defeat the ape he fought, because it would be ridiculous to have a human man beat a giant, mythical ape with his bare hands, even though he does so in the books. But, I wish there would have been some moments that showed him doing something that a regular man wouldn’t be able to do. It also would’ve been nice to show just how smart he is. In the books he’s quite brilliant.

    I liked Jane and thought she was great how she was a lover of Africa and supported him, but wasn’t meek. She was the right kind of spunky that isn’t annoying. That’s a line they straddled well. And I thought they had nice chemistry. Skarsgard was great as Tarzan.

    I am in favor of the idea showing the evils of imperialism, but it was a tad heavy handed here. I would have liked it to be a little more of a pulpy romp. That’s another line they had trouble straddling.

  21. After catching it on pay TV, I have to say that I’m glad that this movie exists, although I appreciate the idea behind it more than its execution. It’s pretty slow and mostly unexciting, also it feels again like the producers cut out at least 30 minutes to get it to a 100 minute runtime, but it’s not the radical re-invention of Tarzan® that I expected or that most other big Hollywood studios would have most likely tried to do. It truly is an old-fashioned adventure movie, with some minor tweaks and additions, like the “realistic” explaination of Tarzan’s® hands or some mild political correctness. I doubt that I will revisit this one very often, but I’m glad that this generation got a real Tarzan® movie and that it’s actually watchable.

    But come on, when will Hollywood figure out how to use Djimon Hounsou right?

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