Sherlock Holmes might hold the record for the most portrayed literary human character in TV and film and Dracula might be the most portrayed non-human to have sprung from the pages of a book, but for my money neither of them can hold a candle to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ totally badass Tarzan. The high-flying hero of at least twenty-four official Rice Burroughs’ novels and countless more books, comics, movies, TV shows, and stage productions, the King of the Apes even scored a Best Original Song Oscar for Disney’s animated Tarzan back in 2000. But something about Tarzan tends to bring out the inner snob in even his most rabid devotees (perhaps it’s the loincloth) and for whatever reason Tarzan tales are still routinely regarded in many circles as pulpy adventure yarns rather than the truly great literature that many of the source novels actually are.
Which might explain why most modern Tarzan film adaptations tend to fall into two distinct camps: bloated, overly-serious adaptations that try to “church up” the material – like 1984’s dreadfully boring Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes – or campy, sexed-up, adaptations like 1982’s Razzie Award-winning Tarzan, the Ape Man, which featured the now-infamous scene of a chimpanzee playfully nibbling on Bo Derek’s naked breast. Yep, that actually happened in the film and it’s even creepier than it sounds.
And though director David Yates’ (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2) tone deaf The Legend of Tarzan falls somewhere squarely between the two camps, the fact that Yates and company try and dress up the proceedings with an overly-long intro set in 19th century England places this snooze-worthy summer stinker squarely in the Lord and Lady Greystoke category. And if you ask me, that’s never a good thing.
Long, boring and often just downright stupid, Legend follows the classic Tarzan origin story – young boy orphaned in Africa, raised by giant apes to become king of the jungle – pretty closely, to a point. But since most of Legend is told through a needlessly-complicated series of shadowy flashbacks during Tarzan’s present day return to the jungle from his estate in England to stop crooked Belgian colonialist from raping the Congo of its diamonds, it’s easy to get confused.
Not helping matters much are the totally bloodless lead performances of Alexander Skarsgård (Melancholia, TV’s True Blood) as Tarzan and Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) as Jane. Skarsgård and Robbie have done spectacular work elsewhere and they might just be two of the hottest people on the planet (especially when wet, as they often are here) but to say that the two lack chemistry as a fictional onscreen couple is the understatement of the century. Seriously, I haven’t seen beautiful people with such few sparks flying between them since a dead-eyed Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins awkwardly played house on a deserted island in The Blue Lagoon. Simply put, Skarsgård and Robbie are awful together and even worse when they’re apart and trying desperately to portray realistic longing and/or concern for one another. I know it sounds crazy, but they even kiss badly.
For better or worse that leaves most of the dramatic heavy lifting to Tarantino regulars Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight) and two-time Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes, Django Unchained) who try their best to keep this sinking ship afloat in very weird supporting turns. Waltz actually isn’t that terrible as Legend’s sharp-tongued Belgian baddie Leon Rom, but Jackson’s distinctively modern take on his improbably-named American diplomat, George Washington Williams will surely one day be the stuff of bad movie acting legend. Jackson literally phones this one in from start to finish and as bad as that sounds it’s actually the best part of the movie.
Equally squandered in another thankless supporting turn is two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, In America) as a vengeful tribal chieftain with a serious bone to pick with Tarzan. But the real loser here is the Tarzan franchise itself. The fact that this is the best Tarzan adventure that Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozard (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) can conjure up for digital age viewers is really depressing and will make you long for the good old days of Johnny Weissmuller and his signature yell like nobody’s business.
Now playing on select British Airways, JetBlue, United, Lufthansa, Delta, American Airlines, and Emirates flights worldwide, The Legend of Tarzan is also available via streaming on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Video.