The current cinematic marketplace being built around rehashing pre-existing properties is depressing, but it’s still possible for exciting pieces of entertainment to be birthed in this environment. The Legend of Tarzan is no such film. It is a pointless, messy exercise. “Paint by the numbers” would be a generous descriptor. That would imply a measure of artistic coherence absent from the process that created such a tedious cavalcade of unimaginative tropes and clichés.

After having seen the trailer, there’s very few blanks left for the film to fill in. Rather than just presenting a run of the mill reboot of the familiar Tarzan narrative, this film unfolds like the sequel to an even more boring reboot that the filmmakers mercifully decided to skip over. Though all the typical hallmarks of the Tarzan origin story are present here, they’re relegated to a largely pointless framing sequence of flashbacks. It just feels like someone involved watched Batman Begins and learned all the wrong lessons. The main thrust of the narrative feels a cheeky bit of Heart of Darkness fanfiction, with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) being convinced to return to the Congo after eight years of living as Lord Greystoke in England.

He and Jane (Margot Robbie) have been struggling to have a child, so the trip back home divides them in a sense. Jane misses the jungle and their friends (animal and native alike), while “John” as he likes to be called now, has put considerable effort into living as his birth parents intended. George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) wants Tarzan’s expertise with the region to help him solve a mystery surrounding slavery, diamond mining and the King of Belgium’s evil emissary Leo Rom (Christoph Waltz). Along the way, just about every box you can imagine in a film like this gets ticked, as Tarzan slowly sheds his civilized skin and gets back in touch with his wild side.

But this unnecessary iteration of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classical hero is less a functioning movie than a curious collection of dissonant visual cues. One long, laborious series of incongruent storytelling methods. Whole scenes unfold like the filmmaking equivalent of math word problems, begging the viewer to spot the questionable cut away or confounding close-up. The actors are tasked with bringing life to a screenplay cobbled together from two different writers’ respective takes, populated with about 75% placeholder dialogue. Characters either spout passages of text wholesale borrowed from other also terrible movies or they stand around sharing moments of pregnant silence, eyes transfixed as if ready to shout “line!” at a nearby script supervisor.

David Yates may have worked magic with the Harry Potter franchise, but in this setting, he comes off like a lazy, ill-suited chameleon. Every subsequent sequence has at least one moment where you can’t help but spot the superior style being referenced. There’s a hand to hand fight on a train that feels like Snowpiercer, shots of a fort filled with soldiers that recalls Zulu and even a vaguely Malickian pan through a field. Every director steals but rarely this clumsily or without cause. That inconsistent visual language is so jarring. In a summer movie like this, it wouldn’t be hard to settle for gorgeous imagery. Instead, paired with some questionable green screen work, you’ve got a movie selling itself on spectacle and failing to deliver.

If there’s any reason to see Tarzan, it’s Samuel L. Jackson. He sticks out like a sore thumb as perhaps the only person 1) trying and 2) having any fucking fun. There would be nothing wrong with a pulpier, cartoony take on this material and Jackson’s usual level of verbal bombast here proves they could have had their cake and eaten it too if they’d just follow his lead. He develops a fun buddy routine late in the film with Tarzan that would have made a far more entertaining enterprise.

The leading role is perfect for Skarsgard, but he provides a flat, arty performance where a more charismatic turn would have really helped this drab picture. Outside of his chiseled musculature and piercing eyes, his decision to speak every bit of dialogue through gritted teeth in what can only be described as the world’s worst Mads Mikkelsen impersonation kills any amount of joy this film accidentally stumbles into. Robbie does her best with a thin sketch of a damsel but no one involved is done the disservice Waltz is subjected to. That an actor so talented and so versatile has officially been shackled to this ruinous villain archetype time and again is the most tragic typecasting of this era.

Somewhere underneath of this disappointing morass of misguided creative choices, there’s two distinct narratives that never got fleshed out in the development process. The first hints at an explorations of the power of myth, both the titular legend of Tarzan himself and Rom’s obsession with his place in his nation’s future. The second concerns the rough draft of a thesis on colonialism, but that theme doesn’t present itself beyond implying the humorous image of the film’s writers scrawling “COLONIALISM BAD” on a white board before circling it six times in red.

In the end, we’re left with a pretty comical set piece of Tarzan, his local mates and a stampede of CGI animals destroying a garrison of mercenaries and scaring off fuddy duddy white men from mining for more jewels. Honestly, if they could have just settled for broad, barely there social commentary with the occasional gorilla fist fight, this could have been a minor success. A Phil Collins song or two couldn’t have hurt either.

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