Moviegoers seeking a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn will find much to like about The Legend of Tarzan, which stars Alexander Skarsgård as the famous ape man and Margot Robbie as his fierce, beloved wife Jane. Directed with spirited intensity and breathless economy by David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films, Tarzan gets off to a stellar start with a thrilling, brutal prologue: Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a corrupt emissary of Belgium's King Leopold II, arrives in the Congo circa 1884, and commands his band of soldiers to open fire on a group of spear-totting tribesmen. A dozen or so are gunned down, but many more quickly appear to slaughter his troops. Fearful but determined, Rom then approaches Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), the tribe's vengeful chief, and strikes a deal to deliver Tarzan to him (for reasons that become clear later) in exchange for a cache of diamonds that will help finance Leopold's merciless efforts to colonize and pillage the Congo.
Cut to Victorian London. Tarzan, having put his vine-swinging days behind him a decade ago, is now living comfortably as John Clayton III, the fifth earl of Greystoke, on a posh English estate with his wife Jane. Via flashbacks, we learn that the orphaned Tarzan was raised by apes in the Congo, and that he rescued Jane from a threatening primate while she was strolling through the jungle. But now duty calls, as Clayton is tricked by Rom into returning to his homeland on a supposed humanitarian mission. Joining him on the journey are Jane and George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), the latter a U.S. diplomatic envoy who believes that Leopold is enslaving Africans and using them as forced labor to tighten his greedy grip on the territory. When they arrive, Rom kidnaps Jane and uses her as bait to lure Tarzan into his trap. What follows is a rousing, timeless adventure, with Tarzan swinging from vine to vine through the jungle in order to find Jane and prevent Rom from escaping with the diamonds.
Skarsgård is a commanding presence as Tarzan; he's muscular, tall, untamed, and -- despite being a bit one-note -- captivating. As Rom tells Jane: "Your husband's wildness disturbs me." It should. And Robbie's Jane is his perfect partner: sexy and strong, radiant and resolute. She's no mere damsel in distress, as she tells Rom to his face. Together, Tarzan and Jane are an intimidating pair, while Jackson brings some welcome comic relief as Williams, who tries -- albeit unsuccessfully -- to keep up with the athletic Tarzan as they dart through jungles, leap from ledges, and crash through treetops. And Waltz, currently cinema's go-to bad guy, does what he does best: cool menace. It's a performance we've seen before from the Oscar winner (specifically in Inglourious Basterds and Spectre), but it's still eerily effective. Credit must also be given to Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer's economical, fast-paced script and Yates' sleek direction. They keep the adventure hurdling along at a rapid stride, and every scene feels essential. In an era of bloated blockbusters, it's refreshing to see an action flick that knows when to exit, as it clocks in at a relatively trim 109 minutes.
Tarzan has been an iconic character almost since the moment author Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced him to the world in 1912, and there have been more than 200 movies produced featuring the legendary Lord of the Jungle. However, it's been a while since he made an appearance on the silver screen, with the last one being Disney's 1999 animated version. Here's hoping The Legend of Tarzan, easily the best Tarzan picture of the past 50 years, generates boffo business at the box office and ensures that the great ape man will keep swinging for years to come.