“The Legend of Tarzan” begins with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård “True Blood”) already as a legendary man. He has returned to the mother country of England, where his parents were from, and has established himself as the heir to his parents’ aristocratic positions in society. When we first meet him, he’s not Tarzan but rather Lord John Clayton, married to Lady Jane Clayton (Margot Robbie “The Wolf of Wall Street”).
The movie supposes the audience already has an understanding of Tarzan’s upbringing and history, though there are flashbacks to his childhood and various allusions to how Tarzan came to be the man he is now. It’s a fair assumption that the audience already has a cultural knowledge of Tarzan’s original story, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in the movie. Instead, the Tarzan origin story is a backstory sprinkled throughout “The Legend of Tarzan” when it really deserves its own film. As a whole, the movie feels more like a sequel than it does the first movie in a potential series of blockbusters.
This could potentially be made up for if “The Legend of Tarzan” was at all interesting, engaging or original. The movie is a classic damsel-in-distress action movie. Tarzan, or — excuse me — John Clayton, is invited by King Leopold to investigate Belgian colonization in the Congo. John is hesitant to accept the invitation but is later convinced by the American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson “The Hateful Eight”) because George believes the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese and wants to prove their crime. John accepts the proposition but does not want Jane to come along because Africa is just too dangerous. Oh so predictably, Jane convinces John to let her join him in the Congo.
Not long after they arrive in the Congo, they are attacked by King Leopold’s captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz “Django Unchained”), who must sell Tarzan to an indigenous tribe to obtain access to their diamond rich lands. In the attack, Tarzan manages to escape but Jane, of course, is captured.
And thus follows the classic damsel-in-distress plotline. Tarzan tries to get Jane back while Leon Rom lures Tarzan with Jane back to the tribe where he will be attacked. Along the way, Jane tries to escape but obviously is unsuccessful and Tarzan shortly reconvenes with his ape brethren. Nearly every beat in the movie can be seen from miles away, such as how Jane escapes and is recaptured.
The most interesting facet of the movie is Samuel L. Jackson’s character. He fought in the Civil War and so thoroughly loved the rush of the battlefield that he went to Mexico to fight for the Republican Army. There he slaughtered the Indians. Regretful of his actions, he hopes to redeem himself by stopping the enslavement of the Congolese by King Leopold. Unfortunately, the character of George Washington Williams is still left relatively underdeveloped and unexplored.
An updated live action version of the Tarzan’s original story could have been an opportunity for a great action-romance film that explored issues like race, colonialism, history and love — or anything else for that matter. Instead, “The Legend of Tarzan” uses these issues more as plot devices rather than ideas to be examined. “The Legend of Tarzan” is a simple damsel-in-distress movie, and not a very good one at that.