Review: Alexander Skarsgard is excellent in the otherwise awkward ‘The Legend of Tarzan’

Kenneth Turan reviews ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent. Video by Jason H. Neubert.

Like its titular character, trying to reconcile being both the fifth Earl of Greystoke and the once and future King of the Jungle, “The Legend of Tarzan” wants to be both modern and traditional, hip and classic. It’s a tough balance to strike, and this film can’t manage it.

Which is too bad, because actor Alexander Skarsgard, the latest iteration of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character filmed dozens of times since Elmo Lincoln donned the loincloth in 1918, turns out to be an exemplary Tarzan.

It’s a given in this age of intense training regimens for actors that Skarsgard has the physique for the part, looking lean and sinewy enough to actually do the breathtaking vine swinging that is in fact accomplished by a CGI character modeled on a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist.

Even better, however, is that the actor, best known for HBO’s “True Blood,” has the fine-boned features that enable him to project a quite gratifying air of dignity, stillness, even repose, making him the very model of an unflappable jungle monarch.

Having David Yates, the director of the final four “Harry Potter” epics, in charge here no doubt helped with this picture’s large-scale action sequences.


But even his skill and that of “Potter” collaborators like production designer Stuart Craig, editor Mark Day and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke can’t heal this film’s split personality.

As written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, “The Legend of Tarzan” alternates between a brazenly contemporary sensibility and quietly time-honored events. Unfortunately, almost all of the former are awkward while the latter still ring true.

A few of Cozad and Brewer’s ideas are interesting, like referencing Belgium’s King Leopold II, whose exploitative personal ownership destroyed the Congo that was the King of the Jungle’s home.

Also, this iteration of Tarzan begins some years after the man in question has married Jane (Margot Robbie) and left Africa for London, where as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, he apparently divides his time between serving in the House of Lords and hybridizing coconuts.

Watch the trailer for “The Legend of Tarzan.”

Meanwhile, back in Africa, we meet King Leopold’s worse-than-evil envoy Leon Rom (the always villainous Christoph Waltz), who does things with a rosary the church never taught and has made a devil’s bargain with Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), chief of the powerful and sinister Mbolonga tribe.

This worthy adversary, who controls some fabulously wealthy diamond mines, has been nursing a grudge against the erstwhile vine swinger, and he tells Rom that if he produces Tarzan he can have all the gems he and Belgium’s greedy king desire.

John Clayton, knowing none of this, allows himself to be convinced to return to Africa, and when wife Jane demands to go along, he takes her with him. Big mistake.

All this sounds promising enough for a Saturday matinee movie, and in fact the parts of “The Legend of Tarzan” that work best are the flashbacks to Tarzan’s well-known jungle origins and his bonding with the fierce Mangani gorillas he thinks of as family.

But this film yearns to be contemporary, which means, among other things, hollow and out of place 21st century dialogue lines like “how do you want to play this” and “tell me something I don’t know,” as well as what the MPAA rating guidelines accurately describe as “brief rude dialogue.”

Even less satisfactory, Tarzan excepted, are the characters who speak this language. Actress Robbie tries hard as Jane but she is too ostentatiously modern and feisty to be at all convincing.

Faring even worse is Samuel J. Jackson, who plays George Washington Williams, a swashbuckling American who convinces John Clayton to take him along when he reveals himself to be a secret anti-slavery crusader.

Part comic relief, part valued ally, Williams is an altogether puzzling script component, and Jackson’s habit of sounding like he just stepped out of “Pulp Fiction” does not help things.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of “The Legend of Tarzan” is that though it is chock-a-block with jungle animals, all of whom seem to know Tarzan personally, they are exclusively created via CGI effects. Some of these moments are quite effective, but quitting while it’s ahead is not something that’s in this film’s vocabulary.

‘The Legend of Tarzan’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

In general release.

“The Legend of Tarzan.” Though Alexander Skarsgard is excellent in the title role, the rest of the film tries too hard to modernize itself, with unhappy results. — Kenneth Turan