It isn’t easy to resurrect legendary cinema heroes created in eras more innocent or, should I say, more sheltered. Tarzan, for instance, runs up against a host of challenges from inherent racism, colonialism and that “me Tarzan, you Jane” male chauvinism.
What the cinema world probably didn’t need was another exhumation of the ape-man. Nonetheless, we get one with “The Legend of Tarzan.”
Given these challenges, which the filmmakers tiptoe through with surprising agility, the new Tarzan is quite adequate in delivering the old-fashioned adventures Edgar Rice Burroughs had in mind when the writer brought him to life in a 1912 pulp magazine. These stories continued on through a dozen Johnny Weissmuller features of the ‘30s and ‘40s and then on to TV, stories that played to childhood fantasies about a feral man in the jungle.
So here he is once more, moving with animal quickness through jungles and high-grass velds, with rippling muscles and a chiseled chest covered by a smooth skin containing the occasional scar tissue. Alexander Skarsgård makes a splendid postmodern Tarzan for he adds a brooding melancholy to the athleticism and sure instincts of the jungle hero.
Skarsgård has flashed this body before along with vampire fangs in HBO’s “True Blood,” but has successfully tested his acting chops in indie fare such as “What Maisie Knew.” His Tarzan thus carries not so much a White Man’s Burden as an Ape Man’s Burden, never fully at home in his ancestral English manse and owing at least as much allegiance to his ape family as his human one.
What, in fact, writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer do, cleverly I think, is skip an origin story in favor of a Return of Tarzan, taking up their tale years after those events.
In flashbacks throughout the film, you do see the legend according to Burroughs — of the white orphan baby raised by an ape mother in the African jungle where his buddies, just as in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” are wild animals from whom he learns to swing ape-like from tree to tree via those ever present vines.
He long ago met his Jane, now Lady Jane (Margot Robbie), an American who has civilized him enough (and somehow got him what sounds like an Oxbridge education) to bring him back to his Greystoke Manor, so he can moodily kick around in its vastness, apparently looking for an excuse to return to the Congo.
It does come although with all the PC throat clearing it takes an inordinately long time for the actual story to kick in. The movie opens with a geo-political/historical introduction to King Leopold II of Belgium, known as the butcher of the Congo for his role in slavery and mass murder in the 1880s.
A down note to begin a Hollywood entertainment and possible franchise reboot, but how else to engineer the proper villain, which in this case is a Leopold surrogate named Leon Rom, a role entrusted to the current go-to villain Christoph Waltz?
The king has sent an invitation to Tarzan, who now goes by the name of John Clayton, to return to the Congo to witness all his good deeds. John summarily rejects this invite, but is persuaded otherwise by one George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson who brings all his Tarantino luggage to this sidekick role to telling effect).
Williams is a Yankee spy and suspects the Belgian king is enslaving the region’s people. He means to hitch a ride with John/Tarzan to find out.
The screenplay now escalates into reunions with the ape man’s families both human and animal in the jungle, a kidnapping of Lady Jane, a mercenary army on the move, killings, showdowns, old quarrels settled and a final race to a colonial seafront where a blood diamond kickback is being delivered.
So plenty of action for me but I must report the 10-year-old I saw the movie with had the opposite reaction: too little action for him.
The film is directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four movies in the “Harry Potter” franchise. He moves easily between swift tracking shots amid digitally rendered trees and wildlife to close, intimate human chicanery and bigger set piece such as Tarzan’s capture of an entire train of Belgian soldiers with their African slaves.
Cinematographer Henry Braham and veteran production designer Stuart Craig (who, ironically, performed the same job on the last major Tarzan movie, “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” 32 years ago) do highly creative work in studio sets and on location in little-seen Gabon to make you believe this is the late 19th-century Congo.
Somehow in long shots of rolling hills and the sun and the verdant greenery, the film takes on a painterly quality at times.
Whether “The Legend of Tarzan” has what it takes to resurrect a franchise is anybody’s guess. At least we have one of the best Tarzan movies ever. If that’s a feat you feel like shrugging off, just consider the recent attempts to exhume the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Independence Day.
Opens July 1, 2016 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Jerry Weintraub Productions, Riche/Ludwig, Beaglepug Productions
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz, Ben Chaplin, Simon Russell Beale, Yule Masiteng
Director: David Yates
Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Story by: Craig Brewer, Adam Cozad
Based on the Tarzan stories by: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Producers: Jerry Weintraub, David Barron, Alan Riche, Tony Ludwig
Executive producers: Susan Elkins, Nikolas Korda, Keith Goldberg, David Yates, Mike Richardson, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Henry Braham
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Costume designer: Ruth Myers
Visual effects supervisor: Tim Burke
Editor: Mark Day
PG-13 rating, 110 minutes