At last, a Hollywood reimagining with a point. David Yates' two-fisted pulp-studies spree The Legend of Tarzan doesn't just update Edgar Rice Burroughs' white-boy jungle-bro for our age of heightened sensitivities and bit rates. It interrogates the very idea of Tarzan, signing the old sport up for the good fight against colonialism and everything that probably makes you queasy about old-school jungle adventures. The movie's first sentence, on a title card Frantz
The first scene wittily sends up the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with treasure-hunters prowling into the verdant bush, acting like they own the place. But their leader is Christoph Waltz rather than Harrison Ford, and they're working for wicked King Leopold of Belgium rather than some university museum, so by the time they've run afoul of the indigenous population you're jeering the invaders and probably relishing the suspense. Director Yates (who handled the last four Harry Potter films) is vigorously imaginative in the moments before violence, zooming in on scared white faces, the barrel of a rolling machine gun and the ash-coated African warriors, wielding spears
Eventually, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) shows up with life-and-adventure partner Jane (Margot Robbie) and their new best friend, a Samuel L. Jackson character who may as well just be named "Samuel L. Jackson” and brightens the movie up early on by saying “You are Tarzan!” and doing some no-shit jazz hands. The 2016 model is less Lord of the Jungle than Social Jungle Warrior, an extravagantly
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There, Tarzan and co. hang with the most warmly depicted native tribe ever to appear in a
Much better are the buildups, the fingers on triggers or the humans going still before the convincingly wild CGI beasts. These scenes often touch that awed Spielbergian pleasure-terror that Jurassic World fumbled. The movie's got more critter-treats than a box of animal crackers: The tigers snuffle Tarzan, happy to see him again; the hippos bob fearsomely in a beautiful/terrible river; and in the climax, the water buffalo and the crocodiles and who knows what else just keep coming, only a hair less ridiculous than when the Marx Brothers, pinned down in Duck Soup, call for help — and are rewarded with a relentless reel of hurrying-animal stock footage.
For all its high-mindedness, the movie is also agreeably ripe, indulging in sweaty-pec close-ups, Spider-Man–style vine-swinging, romantic clinches that look like recreations of Harlequin paperback covers, a villain who uses rosary beads as something like a bullwhip and a gush of PG-13 Sam Jackson-isms, some for the ages: “Why is it people don't ride zebras?” he asks. “Damn, that's one odious aroma,” he declares. And will he ever top “Snake's good meat — I ain't eating no damn ant”?
The story, grounded in historical tragedy, still honors the outline of Burroughs' tales, no matter all its revisionism: Jane gets kidnapped by diamond-hungry white folks representing a civilization less civilized than the jungle cultures, and Tarzan sets out after her. She has her agency, contriving escape attempts much like Karen Allen's
It's Jackson who gets the biggest surprise. With Jane out of the picture, it's his character, a doctor, who has to tend to the shirtless hero's wounds. As they both recover, he offers up a quick monologue about post–Civil War America that sums up, in a minute or so, what took Quentin Tarantino three hours in The Hateful Eight: Jackson's character signed up with the federal government to fight Native Americans, and he's not proud of what he did. Sitting there in the jungle, having been physically intimate with the character who has long seemed our culture's most absurd fantasy of white power, Jackson's character observes that what the U.S. did ain't no better than what King Leopold was up to. This Tarzan, like Django Unchained before it, makes a hell of a case for pulp fiction.