[Screen It]


(2016) (Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: A late 19th century British aristocrat returns to Africa, where he was raised by apes, to investigate questionable business activities in the Congo.
It's the late 1800s and Belgium's King Leopold has taken over much of Africa's Congo. Yet, he's running out of money and has sent Leon Rom (CHRISTOPH WALTZ) there to extract diamonds from the colony via the use of slaves, but has run into problems in the form of tribal leader Chief Mbonga (DJIMON HOUNSOU). That man agrees to let Leon get those valuable stones if the latter delivers Tarzan to him. The only problem is that the legendary ape man (ALEXANDER SKARSGARD) is now living in London under his birth name, John Clayton, with his wife, Jane (MARGOT ROBBIE), in their Greystoke manor.

Orphaned as a child and raised by gorillas, John has no intent on returning. But the Prime Minister (JIM BROADBENT) and U.S. diplomatic envoy George Washington Williams (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) think he's the right person to build better relations with the Belgian king, with George also concerned about the growing slave trade there, what with having fought in the Civil War as a black man to end just that in America. With Jane -- who grew up in Africa due to her father teaching English in the jungle where she ultimately met her future husband -- John travels there with her and George, and meet with their old tribal friends, including Wasimbu (SIDNEY RALITSOELE).

Unbeknownst to them, Leon has set up a trap to capture John, but when that doesn't work he nabs Jane instead. From that point on, John -- reverting back to his former Tarzan ways -- then sets out to rescue his wife, aided by George, Wasimbu and a variety of animals under his command.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
In terms of fictional characters appearing in various forms of media (films, TV, books, comic books, etc.) it's highly unlikely many, if any, can match the number of appearances the lord of the jungle, a.k.a. John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke, the Earl of Greystoke and yes, Tarzan, has made since his first introduction more than 100 years ago.

Yet, if you asked most anyone to name their top three actors to portray the character, they might mention Christopher Lambert (if old enough) or Johnny Weissmuller (if really old enough), but then come up with blanks after that. The same goes for movie titles. Most would probably list Disney's animated Tarzan or maybe the 1984 film "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," but would be hard-pressed after that.

Back when I was growing up in the 1960s and '70s, I watched most if not all of those old, black and white Weissmuller versions (and remember being confused when other actors would appear as the title character), but couldn't name a single one of them. In short, they were simply Tarzan movies and often featured Jane, Cheeta & Boy as secondary characters, but I haven't noticed any of them on TV in decades.

Undeterred by that and what's likely not a massive collective interest in seeing the character once more up on the big screen, Warner Bros. and others have ponied up a reported $180 million (before marketing) to make "The Legend of Tarzan" and swing it into theaters to compete with other big-budget, summer studio tentpole offerings.

Whether audiences will show up in droves or just a trickle is yet to be determined. Yet, having just watched a preview press screening of the film, there isn't much here to have initial viewers returning or telling others they must go.

Sure, there's a recognizable cast including Margot Robbie ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Samuel L. Jackson ("Pulp Fiction") and Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds") along with Alexander Skarsgard's washboard abs and various buff black actors (including Djimon Hounsou) playing tribesmen of the day.

And there are plenty of impressively rendered, digitally-created jungle animals (rather than the usual real thing); fighting and other action scenes; the usual clash between prim and proper, aristocratic England and primitive, wild and lush Africa; and some contemporary views on colonialism, slavery and even, of all weird but brief things, priestly pedophilia (just a comment).

Even so, as written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and directed by David Yates (who helmed the last four "Harry Potter" movies), the film might look pretty, but it's otherwise a less than engaging or interesting offering. In fact, despite its frenetic moments (some of which are shot and/or edited in too much of a contemporary style that belies the period setting and may be covering up some faults or inadequacies), it mostly comes off as a dud.

Rather than go the usual origins story route that starts the tale at the beginning (where a boy is orphaned in the jungle, raised by apes, discovered, returned to England and then forced to acclimate to his decidedly foreign surroundings), Yates and company deliver such material in occasional flashbacks. Not only are they designed to tell that part of the tale, but they're also presumably being used to depict the mindset of the title character and what makes him tick (and ultimately return to Africa to get the main storyline ball rolling forward).

There, a ruthless businessman (Christoph Waltz, now seemingly stuck forever in this stereotype where you could interchange his various characters without missing much of a beat) has made a deal with a vindictive tribal leader (Djimon Hounsou). In exchange for allowing the white man to enslave others and extract diamonds, all he wants is Tarzan for a little familial revenge.

Tarzan/John's wife (Robbie) ends up kidnapped, and Tarzan then sets out to rescue her, with Jackson there in something of a comic relief role (getting winded trying to keep up with the ever-running and swinging ape-man). The performances are generally okay, but Waltz and Jackson clearly overshadow Skarsgard and Robbie, and had this been the first time we'd seen them play such roles/characters, it might have been impressive. But they simply feel like they're retreading slightly altered versions of those they've done before.

Which pretty much applies to the overall film. It's okay, but nothing new for this tale and character that have appeared about a gazillion times over the past century. While there's no "Me Tarzan, you Jane" bit of dialogue, you might find yourself uttering, "Me bored, let's go." Unlikely to be remembered in some future name-a-Tarzan-film quiz, "The Legend of Tarzan" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 29, 2016 / Posted July 1, 2016

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