Friday, July 1, 2016

I saw Tarzan's Return...

"The Legend of Tarzan" is bold and brazen in its supreme rawness: a sequel/companion piece to all the Tarzan tales that have come before, which remains faithful to its Edgar Rice Burrough's roots. Above all, it proves that Tarzan doesn't need to combat a fellow good guy like the Phantom or Jungle Jim to remain relevant in this impetuous, clash-of-ideologies age.

Directed by David Yates, from a script by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, the new Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is found comfortably occupying the role of gentleman John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, but this man of extraordinary strength and high intellect has never abandoned his primal foundation. The proof comes via sentimental recollection and effective, simian-laden flashbacks (where Christian Stevens and Rory Saper's young Tarzans fill the bridges), establishing just enough retelling to give one insight into Tarzan's past, while never expanding it into a full-fledged retelling.

In this particular chapter, Tarzan is lured back to the jungle by the invitation of Belgium's King Leopold II to witness (and endorse) the "charitable" manner in which he's transformed the Congo. Tarzan, however, is wary of accepting the offer, but when the conscientious Consul General George Washington Williams, a character based on the real-life Civil War hero/writer, informs him of the actual exploitation occurring in the area, the jungle lord decides to go along for the ride, reluctantly taking his beautiful, American-breed wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), even though he knows the danger involved. 

The latter comes in the form of Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), based on the real-life, Belgium soldier known for his sadistic ways, who hopes to hand Tarzan over to the vengeful Chief Mbonga (Dijimon Hounsou) in trade for diamonds. When Rom manages to kidnap Tarzan, Washington helps him escape, but that doesn't stop our villain from trying again. He grabs Jane and uses her as bait, leading Tarzan and Williams on a perilous trek to get her back, while in the process trying to break Rom's imperialistic expansion. 

The story isn't much more complicated than this, but through its simplicity, it shines, even mimicking aspects of Burrough's initial literary sequel, "The Return of Tarzan", along the way. It also covers a common conflict that one will find in any number of previous Tarzan movies, particularly the Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker and Gordon Scott chapters. It also instills the idyllic ambiance of Hugh Hudson's "Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes", at least in its British-based and flashback passages. 

"Legend" also holds its own with the best of modern thrill rides. For one, Tarzan's vine-swinging sequences are dizzying and energetic, and though they do smack of computerized enhancement, they drive home the ape man's unparalleled strength and endurance. To strengthen these sequences, Skarsgard's physique makes Tarzan's preternatural athleticism credible. To boot, he's equally believable in the animal team-up scenes and an ideal match for Robbie's goddess-like beauty, which is culled straight from Burrough's 1912 novel.

Waltz, of course, is an excellent villain, as he's proven in such past roles, particularly in the Bond epic, "Spectre", injecting sophistication into his meanness and possessing a memorable spider-silk rosary as his weapon of choice. 

Jackson's Williams is also a great addition to the film: a Bass Reeves, cowpoke type, who's handy with a gun and respectful of the land in which he roams. He matches Tarzan and Jane's ethical stance to a tee: a supporting character initially, who eventually becomes an amicable lead. 

Above all, what makes Yate's take so impressive is that, by hook or by crook, the movie taps straight into Burroughs's pulse, allowing Tarzan to embody the best extremes of the human condition: a seamless combination of man and god, just as the author intended. 

The film isn't without its flaws, however. Skarsgard's Tarzan sports pants throughout ninety-nine percent of the film, instead of his traditional loincloth. The bad guys also get the upper hand on him in an early sequence and later (as well as in a related flashback), so does a great ape--utter bull! The film loses a point for these missteps, but otherwise, the story re-establishes a straight-forward standard that filmmakers should use when reintroducing old favorites. ("Spider-man: Homecoming" producers take note!)

Whether this particular Tarzan makes a splash at the box office isn't so much what's important. It's the respect devoted to its lead character (and his majestic mate) that counts. Anyone who loves Tarzan will appreciate the care poured into the production, but even modern actioneers won't be let down. This one covers the bases well: a delightful film for viewers of all varying persuasions.

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