Sunday, July 3, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Now for the opposing view...

No other fictional character has been so widely adapted to film and yet still never given their proper due as much as Edgar Rice Burroughs' indelible creation, Tarzan of the Apes. There have been countless movies and TV shows since his original appearance in 1912, but few have bothered to portray the character as anything more than a muscle-bound brute who speaks in the third person. True Tarzan fans know that the character is far richer and more complex than that; an English lord who is just as at home sipping absinthe in the study of his luxurious estate as he is wrestling naked with lions on the African plain. 

I’m happy to report that the Tarzan found in Warner Brothers’ latest attempt at bringing him to the big screen is the truest version yet seen, almost as if he has stepped fully-formed from the rough, unfinished paper the pulps he appeared in were originally printed on. It is a shame, then, that the movie surrounding him is kind of a mess. But much like this summer’s Warcraft, it is a fascinating mess. There is a lot to criticize during the film’s 108 minute runtime, for sure, but there is also much to admire. The film is certainly not as bad as the string of trailers leading up to its release would lead you to believe, and--much like that other infamous ERB adaptation, John Carter--definitely undeserving of its accrued widespread scorn for swinging for the fences and falling a bit shy of the mark.

One thing the film has in its favor: it’s not another fucking origin story. When we meet up with our hero in 1889, he’s already out of the jungle and married to Jane, living a quiet (but still uneasy) life in England. He is called back into action by the British government, which seeks to have him return to his former home and serve as diplomatic envoy to the Belgium-controlled Congo. Hesitant at first, Tarzan accepts the request, and of course discovers that things aren’t exactly what they seem. His whole trip is a ruse designed by the villainous Leon Rom, who has agreed to give Tarzan over to a vengeful chief in exchange for access to his tribe’s jewels and thus establish a firm power-base for himself on the African continent.

We should probably start by going ahead and addressing the elephant in the room, as there’s no two ways around it: Tarzan is the ultimate “white savior” fable, and although this portrayal goes to great lengths to distance itself of that problematic conceit, it’s still there. The story of a white man transplanted into a foreign place and conquering the elements found therein is just too inherently loaded with Imperialist ideals to be anything else. The filmmakers’ admirably add other characters to the story in order to break up all those white faces, but it does little to help; the speaking roles given to Caucasian actors still far outweighs the number of Africans in this movie that takes place largely in Africa, and that in itself is a major problem. In these days when so few actors of color are given the chance to headline major motion pictures (and not just as the sidekick, but the lead hero), it will be quite a hurdle for many viewers to overcome before even seeing the movie, and they aren’t wrong in their unwillingness to take the plunge. 

But the attempts at turning what was a very racist original story* into something more agreeable to modern sensibilities is noble, if not a little misguided. The film takes the real events of late 19th century Congo and makes them a crucial element of the plot, where Belgian officials horribly abused their power through slave labor and brutal mistreatment of the Congolese. It’s refreshing to see a major summer film tackle such subject matter, even though it ultimately leads nowhere. The film is constantly introducing haphazard conflicts that are either resolved abruptly or abandoned entirely, leaving in its wake an oddly-paced story that often feels like a book with missing pages. It is a frustrating jumble, and one that I suspect has been so massively rewritten, reshot and recut as to render it thoroughly stripped of whatever interesting statement it originally possessed.

David Yates is at the directorial helm, and has already proved his blockbuster bonafides with the latter half to one of the most successful franchises of our age in the Harry Potter series. Here, the director adapts admirably to the jungle landscape, and delivers a handsome-looking movie. It’s not nearly as beautiful as this year’s earlier Jungle Book, but there are some moments of undeniable grandeur. The CG-laden set-pieces are fine, although lacking in the sort of white-knuckle adventure that made ERB’s prose so impactful. They definitely suffer from missing that Spielbergian touch that sees a mounting tension running parallel to the action, making the set-pieces little mini-stories in their own right. The many fights and chases that break out here are little more than a bunch of moving shots thrown together haphazardly. The beats lack a proper set-up and pay-off: the death of one particular villain who prominently shows his nastiness throughout happens in such a rush that the viewer will miss it literally by blinking (and if you consider that a spoiler… well, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got a rough life ahead of yourself, there). And Yates falls prey more than once this Uwe Boll, sub-bullet time bullshit, which sees his camera spinning dizzily around the action and further confusing the beats of the scene.

Yates does deserve credit for assembling a cast of exemplary talents, although whether or not they are utilized to the fullness of their abilities is another matter entirely. A ripped Alexander Skarsgård cuts a mean figure as the jungle lord, but the actor also never forgets to find the wounded humanity within. He may appear stiff and distant at times, but that is entirely in keeping with the character as he was originally written; an eternal outsider who ultimately had no place amongst the apes who raised him, or the society he had to reintegrate himself into. His performance is hampered slightly by the script, which saddles his character with several arcs that have no real pay-off in the long run. Tarzan tries to shed himself of his jungle upbringing, come face-to-face with the cost of his own vengeance and settle the animosity between he and his former ape family. Any one of them would have made for an intriguing character arc, but the film never decides to focus on a single one, leaving them all undercooked as a result.

Margot Robbie tackles what could be a thankless role in Jane Porter, but although the actress spends most of her screen-time as a captive to lure Tarzan into a trap, she imbues the character with the same fire that made the likes of Marion Ravenwood and Princess Leia more than mere damsels in distress. Her only role in the narrative is to provide someone for Tarzan to rescue, but Robbie never once lets the character be robbed of any angency. Most importantly, Skarsgård and Robbie have a natural chemistry, an electric sexuality that must be present in all the best Tarzan stories. There is a reason Carl Jung used Tarzan as an example of the first level of development to the anima/animus of the unconscious mind, as the flashback here to Tarzan and Jane’s first meeting where they discover and explore each other’s bodies will attest. Had the film had a few more such scenes of swooning, it would likely find a devoted audience on Tumblr.   

Sam Jackson shows up and does his Sam Jackson thing as George Washington Williams, an American envoy accompanying Tarzan through the Congo. It is very much a pay-check role for the actor, but Jackson seems more engaged than usual here. Perhaps it’s the chance to play a real-life badass: a war veteran, politician, writer and explorer who was actually in the Belgian-controlled Congo at this point in time, relaying to King Leopold himself the horrors he witnessed being carried out in his name. Williams serves as a humbling reminder that African Americans were not relegated to the side-lines of history as we are so often led to believe, but rather movers and shakers and important fixtures upon which the modern world was built. Jackson is fantastic in the role, providing the film with much of its comic relief and most intimately human moments. If we’re being completely honest, this should have been his movie instead of Tarzan’s.

The villain is also a figure taken from the actual history of the Congo, Captain Léon Rom. Now, I know what you’re thinking: is this yet another waste of Christoph Waltz as the villain in a major Hollywood blockbuster? The answer is… Yes and no. Waltz is doing some rather interesting things in the role, but his comic book motivations undercut the reality of what was truly evil about the man. The historical Rom was a monster, a tyrant who was reported to have kept the severed heads of Africans in his flower bed. That little detail is perhaps too much for a family film released in the middle of the summer, but in a movie where the issues of slavery and Imperialism are brought up only to never really be addressed, they surely could have built Rom up into a more despicable villain.

Djimon Honsou rounds out the main cast as the chief of the hidden city of Opar who demands that Rom bring him Tarzan so he can enact vengeance upon the ape-man. While Honsou is always a welcome presence in any movie, his talents are thoroughly wasted here. The character’s arc and the origin of his animosity with Tarzan could have been a compelling conflict inserted into the narrative when a late, last minute complication to the plot was needed, but Honsou doesn’t get to do much here other than wear a neat-looking outfit (surely inspired by the Leopard Men from the 18th Tarzan novel, for all you ERB enthusiasts out there) and look stoic and angry; something the actor indeed excels at, but is capable of so much more. The film also misses an opportunity by not including La, the queen and high priestess of Opar who even ERB felt was a better match for Tarzan than Jane. Judging by the way most all of the characters are handled in the film, she likely would have been shuffled off to the side by the end, but another strong female role would have been nice in this very sausage-heavy movie.

All in all, The Legend of Tarzan feels destined to be forgotten as soon as it has arrived, a franchise non-starter the critics will dog-pile on and the masses will likely pass over in favor of better options at the crowded summer box office. The film itself rushes through its perfunctory ending, sprinting like a runner eyeing the finish line: the fade-to-black that will bring the credits, almost as if Warners were so embarrassed by the movie that they wanted to rush it out the door and scrounge whatever meager earnings they could before it disappeared completely from the public eye. It’s a shame, really: the film has undeniable faults, but there is certainly a place at the table for interesting failures just as much as everything else.

* Much of the pop entertainment of its day was horribly racist, but the original Tarzan of the Apes operates at a level removed even from that. One passage in particular has Tarzan introducing himself as the “killer of many black men.” I will always be a fan of ERB’s work, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be appalled by it at the same time.    

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