There are a dozen films fighting for supremacy in Warner Brothers' The Legend Of Tarzan, and there’s no clear winner to the war. It’s impossible to guess how narratively and tonally divided Legend is from the trailers, which present it as a standard-issue fantasy/historical epic, or maybe the latest “brand deposit” live-action version of an existing Disney movie. But the filmmakers—four-time Harry Potter director David Yates and writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, with heavy utility assistance from The Golden Compass cinematographer Henry Braham and a bevy of digital-effects companies—seem to have many different aims that are only partially compatible. There’s a real historical tragedy lurking under Legend’s glossy exterior. There’s a self-aware attempt to redefine a long-running cultural phenomenon. There’s a slick blockbuster action movie and a swoony, arthouse-worthy Terrence Malick celebration of the wilderness. There’s a children’s fantasy that sits alongside the recent Jungle Book remake, and a sweaty erotic idyll that sits alongside Outlander. And they’re all linked largely by a shared love of slow motion, extreme close-ups, and sullen, glowering beefcake shots.
The film opens in 1884, with Belgium’s King Leopold II taking control of the African Congo and attempting to exploit its rich resources. Five years later, the crown is approaching bankruptcy after overcommitting in the region, and Leopold dispatches his trusted representative Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to take control by enslaving natives and importing a mercenary army. Rom strikes a deal for diamonds with a ferocious local chief (Djimon Hounsou), who wants one thing in exchange: Former Congo wild-boy Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), now living in England with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). So Rom lures them to the Congo, and kidnaps Jane to bait Tarzan into following. During the long, eventful chase across the continent, Rom discovers he lusts after Jane, kicking off a Ming The Merciless-style relationship where he keeps trying to seduce the heroine while simultaneously holding her captive and trying to murder her soulmate.
Legend Of Tarzan only spends a little time on the character's jungle origin story, revealed in brief flashbacks. The filmmakers assume audiences know these beats, and don't need them spelled out. (If only the people behind the last half-dozen Batman-related movies were as restrained.) But as a result, it starts with a protagonist who's redefined himself as a repressed, civilized Victorian gentleman, so separated from everything that defines his character that the film spends half its runtime either building a version of Tarzan that's meant to disappear moments later, or working to re-establish him in his element. Initially, there's so little Tarzan in this movie that the creators have Samuel L. Jackson—playing real-life black historian and Civil War veteran Dr. George Washington Williams—Tarzansplain Lord Greystoke to himself in a ridiculous "You are Tarzan!" speech.
Williams is a strange and interesting addition to the familiar Tarzan story, but also an endlessly problematic one. The real Williams really did travel to the Congo to expose and undermine the horrific slave trade in the Belgian colony. The fictional version hopes Tarzan's celebrity and familiarity with the region will help his cause. Williams' calculated presence in the film, and his unimpeachable status as a real-life historical figure, helps subvert the awkward Great White Savior trope Tarzan represents. But the filmmakers undermine their own subversion by making Williams endlessly inferior to Tarzan. Williams is an experienced survivalist, a crack shot, and a brave, resourceful altruist, but he's also unquestionably a comedy-relief sidekick, tagging along for the ride, and much less connected to Africa than the Caucasian hero. (As a side note, he's also remarkably close to Jackson's Hateful Eight character.) His presence is a welcome note of racial and symbolic self-awareness in a movie that's already on queasy colonial-narrative ground, but it creates as many problems as it addresses.
Jane is a similar representation problem. She represents a particularly awkward moment in the changing portrayal of women onscreen: She's a careful balancing act between damsel in distress and modern woman of action, a would-be feminist icon who's also a sultry bodice-ripper subjugation fantasy. Margot Robbie stars as on-and-off crazy-Joker-companion Harley Quinn in the upcoming Suicide Squad, and Robbie brings a Harley-esque unhinged energy to the table as she meets Waltz's urbane menace with cracked grins and wild eyes. But no matter how capable and self-assured she is, no matter how much she refuses to cry or scream or cower on demand, the film still can't find a use for her besides "captive." She talks a great game, but she's ineffectual at every turn.
All of which leaves Skarsgård to carry the film on his exceedingly broad and usually bared shoulders. Fans of the Chris Evans muscle-porn in Captain America: Civil War, or the drool-heavy female-gaze beefcake in Magic Mike XXL are being catered to directly in Legend Of Tarzan. Once the film arrives in Africa, roughly every fourth shot is a pin-up image of Skarsgård, shirtless and grimy and looking as soulful as he can. And once he and Jane reach the Congolese village where he grew up, he turns into a romance novel made flesh: His performance is pointedly sexual, primitive, and feral, yet he's civilized and sophisticated enough to comment objectively on his own wildness. He's a tastefully self-aware commentary on the deliberate contradictions of the Tarzan figure, but the film also holds him up as a steamy romantic fantasy, a superhuman image and icon.
All the contradictions between thought-through, delicately considered, sociologically sensitive narrative and dumb-as-hell thriller-adventure become obvious as the film lurches from scene to scene, shifting tonally and conceptually as it goes. Braham gives Legend a moody, misty, light-dappled look that romanticizes the jungle to an extreme degree. There's a sleepy menace to the Congo during the film's quieter moments, and Yates takes the opportunity to push the camera in breathlessly close to his stars, to capture the texture of their skin and the cadence of their breathing. But the action scenes are all bombast and broad, mustache-twirling cartoon evil, with a heavy reliance on CGI animals ported in from the Uncanny Valley. A fight aboard a moving train and a final face-off at an African port both recall the 1999 Barry Sonnenfeld disaster Wild Wild West in their pacing, framing, and offbeat comedy, but Legend also reaches for Legends Of The Fall gravity and beauty at intervals, and occasionally emulates Malick's hushed sunlit reveries from The New World.
And the creators repeatedly overplay their hand, pushing so hard for specific emotions that the stridency becomes hilarious. One particularly laughable sequence has Jane, filthy and sodden and chained to a steamboat rail, communing with an obviously CGI butterfly, while Rom keeps a predatory eye on her. Skarsgård's repeated hipshot half-naked posturing—in the rain, in a face-off with a CGI gorilla, on a moving train, on a boat, in every setting he can find—has an effective allure, but it's also faintly hilarious, as though he's trying to pose for that romance-novel cover, and can't settle on a backdrop. Waltz is the perfect villain in this setting: He's played this exact role before, as the smug, drawling, creepy aesthete who rarely stops smiling. But he's also capable of pivoting on a dime between real menace and garish, performative evil, between playing a subdued charmer, and the kind of movie-serial baddie who ties women to railroad tracks. He's capable of keeping up with Legends Of Tarzan's chameleonic shifts between tragic historical drama, appealingly trashy jungle-smut, and Saturday-morning kids' show. Viewers will probably find that shift much harder to navigate.