He Tarzan. She Jane. Me pretty sure you heard this one before. Approximately a million yards of celluloid have already been dedicated to the character Edgar Rice Burroughs created more than a century ago, portraying fiction’s most famous gorilla whisperer as everything from the lunky mute of the silent-movie era to the loinclothed Renaissance man of Disney’s late-‘90s animated blockbuster. This particular version has been in the works since 2003—the same year, incidentally, that the WB launched a doomed small-screen series featuring future Vikings star Travis Fimmel as a modern-day Tarzan who romanced an NYPD detective and parkoured topless across Manhattan rooftops.
Legend is far more faithful to the source material than that, but it does offer up a new narrative: Third Earl of Greystoke John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård), now a domesticated gentleman safely settled in his ancestral English manor and happily married to his Jane (Margot Robbie), is called to serve as a trade emissary to the Congo—though what the British really want to know is exactly what kind of sketchy colonizing business Belgium’s King Leopold is up to there.
With Jane and an American statesman named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in tow, the prodigal son returns to his homeland and is given a hero’s welcome by CGI lions and adoring natives alike. One man, though, seeks him out for more nefarious reasons: Leopold’s squirrelly consigliere Léon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz in a jazzy little Panama hat, because apparently the Congo was one corner of the globe he had not yet terrorized on film). Léon’s there to funnel as many blood diamonds as he can into the seams of his white linen suit, and this tall blond monkey man plays into his plans in a way that can only end in death for one or both of them.
What follows won’t surprise even the most credulous moviegoer; the whole thing feels almost endearingly old-fashioned in plot and execution, despite a few winky nods to more modern ideas. Jackson in particular doesn’t even try to temper his anachronisms; he’s so 21st-century sardonic you half expect him to suddenly remember he has an iPhone and GPS his way back to a Tarantino set. (Though his character is based on a real historical figure—the man who should actually be honored here for exposing Leopold’s ghastly exploitation of slave labor to the world.)
And how is Skarsgård? All sad eyes and fiberglass abs, he hardly speaks; there’s more dialogue implied by his deltoids than the scant mutterings the script allows him. But he does look fantastic, and the equally pretty Robbie works hard to bring some feminist nerve to her handcuffed-damsel role. Though the film was shot almost entirely on a London soundstage, it rarely misses a chance to pan a sweeping shot across lush forests and glistening waterfalls and amber waves of Congolese grain; there’s a whole lot of post-production magic here—especially in the Noah’s Ark of exotic animals that stand by ready to heed Tarzan’s beck and call, like eager extras on the set of Madagascar. The audience will eventually get more than one bellowing dose of that trademark yodel, plus multiple scenes of gymnastic vine-swinging. You just wish—after two solid but oddly joyless hours—that Legend strained less to hit its marks, and swung a little more. B–