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 terra-cotta army.