Could a Tarzan film be more? Here is an answer — yes.
David Yates, the award-winning director with, among others, four Harry Potter films behind him, makes The Legend of Tarzan soar with adventure as much as it bristles with tension, makes us care as much for king-size characters as unknown African villagers, and most of all, gives us a believable reason to revisit the tale of the man raised by apes. While it’s White men, again, who rise to the rescue, this time of Congo, the film gives a genuine shot at explaining the game played by the colonial masters in divvying up the continent.
Now, preferring to be referred to formally as John Clayton III (Skarsgard), Tarzan has been living for some years in a London castle. A member of the House of Lords, he is as used to tea at certain hours as semi-boiled eggs served a certain way, though the legend of his life in the jungle has followed him to England.
The suggestion that he represent the House of Commons as trade emissary to the Congo, on an invitation by King Leopold of Belgium, stirs up uneasy thoughts of that life, with its share of dangers. John doesn’t hesitate to reject the idea, saying Africa is “too hot”.
George Washington Williams (Jackson, playing a real-life character) persuades him to change his mind, saying he suspects a huge slave trade in Congo. Williams has just fought that war from the other side, at home in America. Jane (Robbie) is excited to return, and when John tries to argue that she should stay back, she points out that Africa is her home too.
Their homecoming, bathed in the warm, glowing colours of the African grasslands, literally and rather too metaphorically, turns bitter soon enough. On their trail is Rom (Waltz), who is after John’s life to further his own interests with the Belgian king.
Yates shoots the battles they fight, amidst huts in a spare village, inside deep forests, swinging in the air, landing on a train, under waterfalls, or atop a boat, with urgency. You never lose sight of what is at stake here, and there is no time for cheap thrills. Even John’s first encounter with his gorilla family is not a picnic, and his fight with his ape brother has all the bone-crunching elements of The Revenant, without the lingering aftermath.
Jane holds her own too, especially, as Rom finds it difficult to contain his fascination for her. Waltz, of course, breezes through his role of a sociopath, with snatches of a real life character too, saying a lot just with how he keeps a rosary always close and wields it as a killing weapon. But Robbie is impressive too, as a woman who, genuinely, no one can ignore.
Jackson is rendered a side fiddle in this tale, which is sad given the real life importance of the character he plays. In that his fate is similar to the other Blacks of the story, who are side shows except when John and Jane include them in their embrace. Their families too are among those abducted when Rom kidnaps Jane, but hardly a tear is shed for the remaining.
The origin story of Tarzan is reserved for flashbacks, but Yates is both spare and effective in how he tells it. This includes the minimal use of Skarsgard in the buff, though when he takes that shirt off, revealing trousers worn oh so dangerously low, half the battle is won.
Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz
Director: David Yates