Fresh off a seven-season stint on “True Blood” and a sensational supporting turn in last year’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Alexander Skarsgård takes his talents to the African jungle for his first big-budget lead role in “The Legend of Tarzan,” a subpar reboot of the adventure series originally created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
A hodgepodge of hackneyed elements strung together without much care for coherence, this adventure tale written by Adam Cozad (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow”) does have some strong points – namely, an appealing cast and a couple of thrilling action sequences – but not enough to justify a reboot or stand its ground in the summer lineup. Whether it’s the schmaltzy romance between Skarsgård and Margot Robbie, or an improbable fight sequence of Tarzan going all Mike Tyson on some apes, for every eye-catching battle sequence and gorgeously mist-shrouded image, there’s an egregious, CGI-tainted counterpart that cancels it out. Despite some animal-related violence that may be hard for the kids to stomach, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a mostly family-friendly affair that fits into the category of perfectly acceptable, but unremarkable entertainment.
It’s the 1880s in the recently declared Congo Free State, and Belgium’s King Leopold II is in the process of pillaging the territory, depleting its rich mineral land and enslaving its people. Amidst these atrocities, while leading a team in a hunt for the legendary diamonds of Opa, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), King Leopold’s envoy, stumbles upon the prized jewels, protected by the formidable Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and his warrior tribe. After a fierce battle wherein nearly all of Rom’s men are killed, he strikes a deal with Mbonga: the diamonds in exchange for Tarzan, who killed Mbonga’s son long ago.
As a ruse to lure him back to his homeland, King Leopold invites Tarzan – now a member of the House of Lords living in England and better known as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke – to the Congo as a trade emissary of Parliament. Initially reluctant to partake in this dubious mission, Clayton is eventually persuaded by a benevolent American diplomatic envoy named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) and the promise of his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie) tagging along for the journey.
Along with Jane and George, Tarzan reacquaints himself with his old stomping grounds and settles in among the familiar faces of Jane’s childhood Congo village. However, Tarzan’s respite is short-lived, as Rom and his cronies soon ambush the village in an attempt to capture Tarzan. Although Tarzan is able to break free, Jane isn’t as lucky, and Rom uses her as a pawn to lure him deep into the jungle and into the hands of the revenge-seeking Chief Mbonga. While the ape-reared Tarzan utilizes his unique skill set to swing his way to Jane’s rescue, the audience is treated to flashbacks of the legendary Tarzan’s formative years.
Although director David Yates (the final four installments in the “Harry Potter” series) brings some excitement to the proceedings and displays a proficiency within the mass-scale Hollywood machine, this ho-hum jungle adventure is hampered by a weak script that would have benefited from more grittiness and less clichés. And while Henry Braham’s stellar cinematography helps make the more outlandish moments go down a little smoother, “The Legend of Tarzan” still falls short of the branch.
Despite undeniably looking the part, Alexander Skarsgård proves an uneasy fit in the titular role of Tarzan. Although the childhood trauma and culture shock his character experiences accounts for some of his onscreen bewilderment, for much of the time he seems simply lost in the jungle. Thankfully, his chemistry with costar Margot Robbie – whose photogenic appeal was hilariously exploited to describe complicated stock terminology in “The Big Short” – is a definite asset even if their romance comes across as overly sentimental. Christoph Waltz is right at home chewing up the scenery as the diabolical Belgian Captain Leon Rom, though seeing an actor of his talents wasted in such a one-note role is somewhat disappointing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson serves up some much-needed comic relief as a courageous diplomatic envoy who follows Tarzan into the heart of the jungle against his better judgment. However, it should be noted that the film’s PG-13 rating robs the audience of an opportunity to hear Jackson spew his favorite obscenity.
A harmless but trifling jungle escapade.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue.
Running Time: 109 minutes