The Legend of Tarzan (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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John Clayton III, once known as Tarzan, does not want to aid his countrymen in securing Congo land for diamond mining.  But his adventurous wife Jane, bolstered by rumors that slavery may be alive and well in the Congo, stir the part of John who will forever be Tarzan and cannot ignore those sins.  David Yates directs The Legend of Tarzan, with the screenplay written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, and stars Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie.

There are few directors who manage to generate apathy and anger toward their products.  David Yates is one of those directors who managed to secure the keys to the Harry Potter franchise after a unremarkable career mostly spent in television.  Starting with The Order of the Phoenix, he drained the Harry Potter world of the charm and identity the cast and previous directors infused in the stories.  With respect to former Can't Stop the Movies reviewer Ryan, who has enjoyed some of Yates' work, the best thing I can say about The Deathly Hallows Part II is that Yates' drab style didn't prevent the performers from giving the climax an appropriate level of emotional panache.

The Legend of Tarzan, released in what was the year of our lord 2016, already had several things working against it.  Tarzan as a character is one of the prototypes for the white man's burden turned into action hero as Tarzan controlled and navigated the wilds in a manner his darker skinned contemporaries could not.  For the character to work at all it would require Tarzan be given some degree of historical context or ignore the problems entirely to embrace the white savior fantasy for what it is.  Yates, in what may be the most stunning cop outs in modern cinema, relates the slave-related struggle of diamond mining in the Congo to a few open credit title cards.  Then it got worse.

"You - white baby - prophet to our kind, our kind totally not being a stand-in for the white man's view of ignorant to noble savagery."

Those hoping for an energetic fantasy with man taking on nature with great bombast will be disappointed by the jarring shifts to discuss the economic issues that led to slavery.  Anyone thinking Yates and crew capable of nuance along with action will be disgusted by the plot that involves an actual goddamn black tribal chief selling black slaves to a white diamond peddler for the life of Tarzan.  Yates wasn't responsible for the screenplay, that dubious honor went to Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, but the resulting film is still mostly Yates' responsibility.  If the answer weren't so depressingly obvious I'd wonder why any executive would greenlight a movie that directly confirms one of the longstanding arguments against the United States brutalization of black people ("Well the blacks sold and had slaves too.")

Two rays of hope for the project The Legend of Tarzan could have been both stem from Brewer's usual lurid style.  The first is the idea, which is a good one, of the now-"civilized" Tarzan uncomfortable with the was he's used as an example of the need for white colonial forces in the Congo.  Refer to the previous "black chief selling black slaves" section for how this idea disintegrates upon introduction.  The second is completely tasteless, probably sexist, and a bit of fun.  In a flashback, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) meets Jane (Margot Robbie) and begins smelling her hair, neck, and moves his way down.  Jane, for her part, is excited and shocked with her eventual pushback against the wild man a perfect example of Brewer's tightrope walk between the fantasies of women and the hijacking of those fantasies by men.

The rest of the writing is inexcusable.  There's tone dead, then there's writing black tribes to sing songs about the myth of Tarzan long after the "civilized" man left the Congo.  It's convenient, I suppose, that The Legend of Tarzan lumped the horrendous concepts of noble savages and white saviors in one storytelling bullet - but that ease of criticism did little to lessen my rage watching then listening to the songs.  None of the characters are written any better but Jane's writing takes the damn prize for awful.  She's a postmodern character in an old-fashioned riff on the white man's burden, constantly talking about how she's not going to be the "distressed damsel" minutes before she's captured and remains so for a bulk of the movie.  It's hack work to make characters aware of their circumstances then still put them in the same stereotypical position.

A white man being necessary to free black slaves sold by a black slaver is a plot point I'd expect to find in a racist's dream journal - not a multi-million dollar production.

Yates handles all of this with zero sense of gravitas or pacing.  A titanic, if utterly ludicrous fight between the relatively tiny Tarzan and a gigantic ape contains a bizarre shot of a roundhouse kick from Tarzan with no collision or internal logic as to why this was a good choice.  When Yates films a firefight between George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) the result is a confounding disaster of PoV.  It makes sense the shots from the Captain's perspective would be chaotic as he's under fire from an unseen gunman.  Less understandable is why the same multi-position offscreen gunshots from George are similarly chaotic even though he's the one with firm control of the situation.  So bullets and bodies fly with no sense of geography as George's bullets might as well be seeking out tree leaves instead of human slavers.

I hate everything about The Legend of Tarzan.  There's the white man's burden "heroics" of Tarzan, the self-congratulatory acknowledgment of then applying stereotypes to Jane, wasting rote villain dialogue on a performer as talented as Christoph Waltz, and so many instances of reinforcing longstanding racist notions of the Congo, slavery, and noble savagery.  Toss in Yates profoundly terrible grasp on everything and it begins to feel like The Legend of Tarzan was approved as a thought experiment to how many regressive techniques could be applied to the story and still have a movie.

The answer is "many", and my emotional response is "rage."

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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Directed by David Yates.
Screenplay written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer.
Starring Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie.

Posted by Andrew

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