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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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Abs Fabs

This summer’s best superhero movie this side of Deadpool, The Legend of Tarzan (hereafter: Tarzan) carries on the torch of a legend in the first of the only two ways possible: dead-on seriousness or camp revisiting. Not that camp doesn’t work, mind you, but the writers of the movie have a collective brain severely missing from our other movie of the week, Suicide Squad, and are therefore able to choose their side instead of desperatly aiming at the middle of the road. Yes, Tarzan aspires to tragedy, an ambition somehow undermined by the fact that its villain is King Leopold II of Belgium, an unlikely foe if there was ever one, but it takes these aspirations seriously and delivers the goods in a dreamy, campy, obsolete way. It’s a superhero movie with a conscience, albeit an easy one, it being Mother Nature herself. But she takes a dire toll on who’s going against Her.

So. starting like King Kong with Congolese ninjas making a fool of the Belgian army, Tarzan establishes Djimon Honsoon as the Leopard King who holds a grudge again Tarzan, and that way an unholy alliance is forged with evil Christopher Waltz (when will he stop to cash it in as a Raider of the Lost Ark evil nazi?), since King Leopold II’s coffers are empty and he needs the Opar diamonds the Leopard tribe happens to detain. The fact that the tribe is readily letting go of a immense treasure to allow the tribe chief to revenge his son before most certainly being either massacred or enslaved is glossed over with the help of some noble words and the fact that Djimon Honsoun looks fantastic in leopard skin and a loin cloth.

Tarzan is bored in England, desultorily visiting the Prime Minister in the company of his black sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson, who else?). Better get used to Tarzan getting bored, or looking mildly annoyed: those are the two expressions Alexander Skarsgård allows his character to sport, letting his spectacular eight-pack do the acting. One would be forgiven to muse on the fact that Lord Greystoke being some kind of a UN ambassador and a diplomatic/black ops weapon of sorts, his stomach muscles shouldn’t be his only set of skills, but the movie, in the best tradition of the action genre, recognise that with great abs come great responsabilities, so Tarzan is back to the jungle to fight the Belgian colonial Empire, slavery and the cowardly assassination of African fauna. And he brings Jane along, since she’s pregnant and a strong spirit.

The jungle, see, “consumes everything but never the strong”, or, in that particular instance, the well connected. Tarzan and Jane are on their best William & Kate behaviour when back to Congo, copious flashbacks exposing their back story, sniffing meet-cute included, and his dysfunctional relationship with his Mangani brother (“Mangani” being the 21st politically correct for “ape” or “gorilla”). It becomes pretty obvious on the course of the movie than Tarzan is quite lousy at fighting, since he loses against lost tribes, gorillas, and even Belgians. But the thing with Tarzan is he has powerful friends, as demonstrated in the final showdown which is all that one wanna see is such an adventure flick: a tea party interrupted by herds of gnous, an elephant stampede and some African finest including lions and crocodiles. For the effectiveness and the elegance of this scene alone, the movie is worth seeing: man is hopeless and not to be trusted, it’s Nature who saves the day rebelling, a lesson learned through hardship and repeated abuse.

Tarzan, as the title indicates, is a legend, an abstraction, an article of faith. Far from defeating the evil Belgian regime he acts as a catalyst from a rejection deep rooted in abuse, crime and callousness. The movie manages not to trip on itself denouncing the exploitation of the Mother Continent by greedy foreign powers, and he does so using the traditional elements of this kind of epic quest: there is a boat and a train that have to be stopped along highlights of the Gabonese rain forest (standing for Congo). There is a “civilised” diner scene establishing the power dynamics between the bad guy and the kind woman, each standing for conflicting ideals. There is a Houdini number, group jumps into the abyss, and a bondage party turned genocide. All that and more. One suspects that should one have seen this movie at 10 years old, it would have become an instant favourite; quite some years down the line, it nevertheless looks great and feels decent, two crucial qualities that most recent super hero train wrecks would be unable to reclaim for themselves. Viewing advised.

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