The choice was The legend of Tarzan or Ghostbusters, macho man or macho women. Taking note of universal downbeat comments on Twitter about Ghostbusters – Women in Boiler Suits, I plumped for Tarzan – Man of Six Packs.
What I got was Tarzan, Me Sorry for Colonialism.
I expected an old school jungle show of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic adventure yarn with revisionist touches, and to a great extent that’s exactly what’s delivered. I also got a film directed by four times Harry Snotter helmer, David Yates, and that means pre-pubescent school boy emotional stuff, sniffy toffs, and monster-sized roars in your face, which we also get.
The film does, however, stick reasonably close to Burrough’s tale though heavily varnished with slave trafficking and Belgian double-dealing. (Gosh, those Europeans are not to be trusted.) There are majestic elephants, bad tempered tigers, stampeding wildebeest, and hungry crocodiles, but no hissing snakes.
The picture opens with a caption across an image of mist-shrouded tree tops in the Congo jungle. “The world’s colonial powers took it upon themselves” we are informed portentously, to divvy up the Congo. Well, that was historically true, but how many decades does it take for Hollywood to feel it’s safe to tell a truth, and in the telling alienate a distribution territory? The bad men are Belgians, not quite French, you understand, Hollywood and the Brits preferred villains, but as close as damn it as far as Hollywood is concerned. If their accent sounds a bit Irish you know why.
We also get Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz playing Christoph Waltz. True to typecast, Jackson is never happier than when he has a knife between his teeth, a gun in his hand, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and a Gatling gun to play with. Bring it on – snakes in your lunchbox. He’s happy here because he gets to speak sub-Tarantino lines: “Snake meat is good, I ain’t eating no ants.”
Waltz plays a poor version of all the baddies we’ve seen him play so well, Léon Rom, self-serving, cunning, duplicitous, creepy, and downright murderous, always with that rictus grin when about to do evil, this time with a rosary twisted around his wrist – the symbol of bad Christian soldiers on the march – more lethal than an iron bar when it comes to downing baddies bigger than himself.
I felt sorry for Waltz, he’s capable of better things. I hope he got a fat fee for his trouble.
For eye candy we get bright as a newly minted pin Margot Robbie as an American Lady Jane, Tarzan’s bitch. She’s not called Amber, but might as well.
In the tradition of King Kong – and there’s a lot of seriously grumpy gorillas in the film that a dozen Attenboroughs could never charm – Jane does a lot of yelling and screaming for her man and never gets a hoarse throat. Now and then she zaps some unwary Belgian in the bawbag to show she’s damn feisty.
She spends a lot of the film handcuffed to a ship’s railings, a nice present for S and M fanatics. Her make-up rarely runs, but her hair does get wet when it rains and dries instantly without a hand blower.
And then there is the lead, Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan, “Call me Lord Greystoke!” (The fashion for toff actors from Eton is here taken to ludicrous lengths.) For lead read lead, as in the base metal. Rarely have I seen such a bad actor act so badly.
For a man weaned by gorillas, who can swing through the air hanging from tree creepers, Skargård is as stiff and awkward as the tallest baobab tree and twice as thick. He seem to think leaning to the left or to the right signifies intensity.
We see him show a group of children his large hands – “I was born to run on all fours”, but we never see him as much as squat. I doubt he can manage it because his permanently soaking wet trousers constrict any movement of his legs. He must be the first Tarzan not to wear a loin cloth. Odd decision. How do you swing through trees, run, hop and skip through thick jungle, and swim rivers yet not rip your pants? Don’t tell me it’s all down to double stitching!
As the eldest son of his famous father, Stellan Skarsgard, (an actor who monopolises manic depressive roles) he exhibits next to no acting ability. I read he was voted Sweden’s sexiest man. Five times. Who was the competition, Quasimodo?
Swedes must have a cold notion of sex as something immobile. He tries hard to appear not quite human, does a lot of half-audible grunting, gives the impression of a hairy lout, then contrary to his character, mouths the Queen impeccable English. But he does bring to the role amazing hair extensions.
The actor who does command the screen is Djimon Hounsou. He has only two pivotal scenes but, dusted in ash powder, leopard skin attired as if Death incarnate, Bible black, black as a beetle, he is, if you want to know, awesome.
His forbidding presence is theatrically accentuated by inhabiting a fishless, lifeless, plant bereft river bed between jagged outcrops of imposing black rocks. He and his tribe like to rough it. All that water and they keep ash dust on their faces. The more I thought about it, the more I realised Burroughs missed a trick not making Tarzan an African. Then again, they were not in the market to read his novels.
A plea: will some smart producer or director please give Hounsou a leading role of substance as soon as possible. The good ones can’t all be cockney characters fit only for the overused Idris Elba.
The story is, Tarzan, or rather Lord Greystoke, gets seduced back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is being exploited as a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the Belgian, Leon Rom. But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash: 110 minutes of pulp fiction and beefcake.
Asked if he, as Lord Greystoke, will take on the commission to track down the dastardly Belgian slave traffickers, Tarzan answers, “I’ve already seen Africa”. Oo-er.
By the end of the movie I felt I had seen every Tarzan film ever made rolled into this new version, most of them camp, crude and very risible, including the one starring the annoyingly myopic Christopher Lambert.
There are some bad editing cuts, character walking across dust plains only to appear in lush jungle by the river’s edge, lots of annoying fights for no real reasons, and lashing of rain storms. I guess a lot must lie on the cutting room floor, as they used to say, John Hurt’s performance being one casualty of editorial power. There are a few good elements, usually the moment before a battle, camera closing in on tense faces and frightened eyes.
I left the cinema in Edinburgh’s torrential rain – minus luxuriant jungle plants – wishing I had chosen to see Ghostbusters with all those Ruth Davidson type women. I really liked the Ghostbuster theme tune and missed any sort of tune in Tarzan, other than his famous window smashing call – aaaaaaaa-eee-aaa-eee-aaah!
- Star rating: Two stars
- Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz
- Director: David Yates
- Writer: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer, Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Duration: 110 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?