The Legend of Tarzan takes place years after Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) returns to London and takes his rightful place on the House of Lords as Earl of Greystoke. He has no desire to return to Africa, but he is drawn there by the prodding of American emissary Dr. George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who asks for his help in investigating the King of Belgium's reign on the Congo. Unbeknownst to him and his allies, his invitation to the Congo was orchestrated by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a man working with someone bearing a grudge against Tarzan.
The film manages to surprise early on with an opening provides a lengthy historical backdrop for the story. The film quickly establishes that this is a story about colonialism, about foreign powers trying to exploit and exert control over a native population. It is a fine ambition, but at the same time, the movie still tries to function as a piece of popcorn entertainment. These two impulses do not work well together in this movie. While one must admire the movie for trying to be something more than a dumb blockbuster, one has every right to question its methods.
The film keeps taking half measures. Its anti-colonialist posturing would be a lot more convincing, for example, if any of the main characters were actually natives. In the same way, there appears to be some effort to make Jane something more than Tarzan's prize. At one point, she literally spits at the idea of being called a damsel. And while this is also a noble intention, it doesn't exactly negate the fact that she spends most of this movie a captive. She is combative and troublesome, but in the end, all that she can offer is the threat of her husband rescuing her.
The attempt at depth does provide for some intriguing elements, though. This is a film that might offer a central metaphor that represents how colonialists used religion as a weapon against native populations. It is a film that acknowledges the horrors that took place following the American Civil War. Speaking through George Washington Williams, the film takes on levels of nuance that one certainly wouldn't expect from a movie like this one. Again, it doesn't all pan out, but it does offer a seed of something that deserves some extra thought.
But the film's pretensions also result in it not being particularly action-packed. The movie just isn't as interested in the kind of pulpy thrills people might be hoping for from a Tarzan movie. The action that is in the movie isn't really well directed, either. The fights lack fluidity, and the visual effects aren't up to par. The cast is all right. Alexander Skarsgard doesn't really do much more than brood, but his sheer physicality conveys a lot of what needs to be said. Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz all perform admirably within these characters' constraints.
The Legend of Tarzan is caught awkwardly between wanting to be a standard dumb blockbuster and wanting to be something more. It makes tentative steps towards a more thoughtful examination of the elements of the story, towards subverting expectations and all the traditional roles. But before it actually gets there, it starts running back to what's safe and familiar. And this results in something that just doesn’t quite work out. There are interesting pieces here and there, but the film just doesn’t have the gumption to follow through on its convictions.