Tarzan’s back, but boring

109 min. | PG-13

In Tarzan’s latest incarnation, John Clayton III aka Lord Greystoke aka Tarzan is played by Alexander Skarsgård. The hunky Swedish actor follows a long line of white athletic studs for a rumble in the jungle.

Here, the post-jungle, grownup Greystoke and his plucky American wife Jane (Margot Robbie), are lured from dreary England to the Congo Free State, the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold. The setting comes from actual history. Among the European leaders who carved up Africa in the 19th century, Leopold was the most malevolent, running Congo as a slave state and ruthlessly exploiting its resources.

Greystoke is ostensibly on a good will mission for the British government, but his American emissary sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson) is working to amass evidence of Leopold’s crimes. The villain is Leopold’s adjutant, Rom (Christoph Waltz), a man whose white suit barely conceals a black heart. Seeking diamonds in the mountainous stronghold of a fierce tribe, Rom strikes a deal: diamonds in exchange for the man who killed the chief’s son, the one they call Tarzan.

With dull stretches and special effects-dependent fight scenes, the film needed an actor more dynamic than Skarsgård. Jackson, always engaging, is both comic relief and the anachronistic soul brother who sometimes realizes how ridiculous the story is becoming. He accompanies Greystoke into the heart of darkness in pursuit of Jane, who’s kidnapped by Rom and captive aboard a heavily armed steamboat. Waltz is marvelously focused as an utterly amoral functionary dressed in a thin veneer of civilization. He steals every minute he’s on screen.

The survival of Tarzan as the subject for a wannabe modern blockbuster is curious, given the characters’ roots in the racist pseudo-science and prevalent white supremacy of a century ago. But he’s capable of being reinterpreted. This Tarzan has become a champion of African people as well as the animals he knew as a wild boy raised by apes. The film’s best special effects involve close encounters with those creatures. The human characters don’t fare as well.