At last, a Hollywood reimagining with a point. David Yates' two-fisted pulp-studies spree The Legend of Tarzan doesn't just update Edgar Rice Burroughs' white-boy jungle-bro for our age of heightened sensitivities and bit rates. It interrogates the very idea of Tarzan, signing the old sport up for the good fight against colonialism and everything that probably makes you queasy about old-school jungle adventures. The movie's first sentence, on a title card Frantz Fanon might appreciate, tells us that, in the late 19th century, “the world's colonial powers took it upon themselves” to divvy up the Congo.
The first scene wittily sends up the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with treasure hunters prowling into the verdant bush, acting like they own the place. But their leader is Christoph Waltz rather than Harrison Ford, and they're working for wicked King Leopold of Belgium rather than some university museum, so by the time they've run afoul of the indigenous population you're jeering the invaders and probably relishing the suspense. Director Yates (who handled the last four Harry Potter films) is vigorously imaginative in the moments before violence, zooming in on scared white faces, the barrel of a rolling machine gun and the ash-coated African warriors, wielding spears in formation atop a waterfall, as still and silent as a terracotta army.
Eventually, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) shows up with life-and-adventure partner Jane (Margot Robbie) and their new best friend, a Samuel L. Jackson character who may as well just be named “Samuel L. Jackson” and brightens the movie up early on by saying “You are Tarzan!” and doing some no-shit jazz hands. The 2016 model is less Lord of the Jungle than Social Jungle Warrior, an extravagantly abbed grown-up journeying from his graying British estate — three mansions piled atop one another — back to the Congo to investigate rumors of slavery in the jungle and bringing his wife along as a blow against adventure-movie sexism.
At first he's reluctant, saying “I've already seen Africa. It's hot.” This first-act time-killing gives the flashbacks to his jungle youth a chance to catch up to the narrative’s present. But Jackson's character, an American atoning for his nation's own sins, prevails, nudging the idle Lord Greystoke and Lady Jane back into action — just the thing they need to get over their recent miscarriage. (Uh, not every acknowledgment of real-world darkness richens pulp.)
There, Tarzan and co. hang with the most warmly depicted native tribe ever to appear in a white-hero jungle flick. The Belgians inevitably come gunning for them, and in the film's first major fracas something unprecedented occurs that I am totally going to spoil: The white hero leaps into the fray to save the tribal chief and is immediately trussed and bound by the bad guys, until American rifleman Samuel L. Jackson storms in and saves his ape-raised ass. That's the first of several humblings that make this Tarzan the most interesting take on the character since Philip José Farmer, in the 1969 novel A Feast Unknown, made him and Doc Savage sword-fight with their own hard-ons. Here, Tarzan gets into a one-on-one duel with a gorilla and accepts what that bear in The Revenant taught Leonardo DiCaprio: Sometimes you just gotta take a beating. (That's also what The Revenant taught audiences.) The fights are quick and brutal and bloodless, with too much slo-mo and sped-up stuff, and some clever camera angles that get cut from before you can work out what you're looking at.
Much better are the buildups, the fingers on triggers or the humans going still before the convincingly wild CGI beasts. These scenes often touch that awed Spielbergian pleasure-terror that Jurassic World fumbled. The movie's got more critter treats than a box of animal crackers: The tigers snuffle Tarzan, happy to see him again; the hippos bob fearsomely in a beautiful/terrible river; and in the climax, the water buffalo and the crocodiles and who knows what else just keep coming, only a hair less ridiculous than when the Marx Brothers, pinned down in Duck Soup, call for help — and are rewarded with a relentless reel of hurrying-animal stock footage.
For all its high-mindedness, the movie is also agreeably ripe, indulging in sweaty-pec close-ups, Spider-Man–style vine-swinging, romantic clinches that look like re-creations of Harlequin paperback covers, a villain who uses rosary beads as something like a bullwhip and a gush of PG-13 Sam Jackson–isms, some for the ages: “Why is it people don't ride zebras?” he asks. “Damn, that's one odious aroma,” he declares. And will he ever top “Snake's good meat — I ain't eating no damn ant”?
The story, grounded in historical tragedy, still honors the outline of Burroughs' tales, no matter all its revisionism: Jane gets kidnapped by diamond-hungry white folks representing a civilization less civilized than the jungle cultures, and Tarzan sets out after her. She has her agency, contriving escape attempts much like Karen Allen's Raiders toughie, but it's hard to argue that there are any women-in-Hollywood breakthroughs when the heroine is handcuffed for so much of the running time.
It's Jackson who gets the biggest surprise. With Jane out of the picture, it's his character, a doctor, who has to tend to the shirtless hero's wounds. As they both recover, he offers up a quick monologue about post–Civil War America that sums up, in a minute or so, what took Quentin Tarantino three hours in The Hateful Eight: Jackson's character signed up with the federal government to fight Native Americans, and he's not proud of what he did. Sitting there in the jungle, having been physically intimate with the character who has long seemed our culture's most absurd fantasy of white power, Jackson's character observes that what the United States did ain't no better than what King Leopold was up to. This Tarzan, like Django Unchained before it, makes a hell of a case for pulp fiction.