Stephen Romei’s verdict on the latest cinema releases
The Legend of Tarzan (M) National release Swiss Army Man (M) National release from July 14
The Legend of Tarzan and Swiss Army Man are two of the strangest films I’ve seen in a while. They don’t have a great deal in common, except for putting men in the wild. Maybe that’s all it takes. Let’s start with Tarzan, as it’s the simplest to describe. Swiss Army Man defies ready reckoning. This latest screen version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books about a man raised by apes is directed by David Yates, who was in charge of the final four Harry Potter films. He also made the first-rate 2003 British television drama State of Play.
I think the problem Yates faced here was being unsure of what sort of movie to make. This Tarzan would work best as a comedy. It has some planned and unplanned funny moments, helped by offbeat cast members Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz. But it’s also an action adventure, not bad at times, and a moralising 21st-century reminder of the wrongs of 19thcentury European colonisation of Africa.
The film opens with an impressive confrontation between Africans and Belgian soldiers in the Congo. The itchy-fingered troops are led by the white-suited, rosary bead-clutching Captain Leon Rom (Waltz). The real Rom, some argue, was the inspiration for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Waltz doesn’t take it quite that far, though his spider-silk prayer beads do have a sinister sting. We move to England to meet the well-groomed John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke. “My name is not Tarzan,’’ he warns.
So this is part sequel, as Tarzan is in his mansion and married to Jane (Australia’s Margot Robbie, who is good but this character just isn’t the complex one she had in her star turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street).
We do see Tarzan’s childhood history through flashbacks to his life with apes and other jungle beasts. He’s a slightly troubled young lord, still working out his right place in the world. His right species, perhaps. There’s a nice scene where he shows some children his strong, unusually formed hands. “I grew up running on all fours.’’
Tarzan’s destiny, it seems, lies in the jungle. He’s persuaded to go back, to look into the brutish Belgian business, by American politician George Washington Williams (Jackson). “You are Africa’s favourite son,’’ he tells Tarzan. Jane goes along too.
Now whatever you think of Tarzan films and television shows, they do attract handsome men, from Olympic swim star Johnny Weissmuller at the start in the 1930s. He was replaced, after 12 films, by the even handsomer Lex Barker. Australia’s Travis Fimmel, a former Calvin Klein model, did his bit in a 2003 TV series. French actor Christopher Lambert was lean and mean in Greystoke: Legend of Tarzan in 1984. But the new one, Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard, may just take the beefcake.
Unlike the animals in the film, which are invented by computers, he is real. He takes his shirt off about 30 minutes in and it never comes close to going back on, which I’m sure will be cheered by a large section of the audience. The flashback moment where tyro Tarzan first seduces young Jane is much funnier than it should be. You may remember it later when Jane observes, “My husband is no normal man.’’
Tarzan, Jane and Williams are back in the Congo, taking on Rom. Jackson, as wisecracking, gun-wielding Williams, looks like he has continued making Quentin Tarantino’s recent western The Hateful Eight. Williams is an American Civil War veteran and there is an attempt to make a point about slavery and the suffering of black people worldwide, but I found it a bit patronising. Waltz, another Tarantino favourite, brings his usual unusualness to Rom, but in the end it’s a bit thin. Look for the scene, though, where he has a dinner date with Jane.
There are some decent thrill-seeking scenes, such as when Tarzan and Williams race through the jungle tree line, including via vine. Some of the moments with animals are OK, especially when Tarzan’s ape mum looks after him. But by and large they are a bit unbelievable, particularly a stampede towards the end that reminded me of James Cameron’s human-annihilation quest Avatar.
The Legend of Tarzan is a passable action ad- venture. I ended up thinking a lot about it afterwards, because I found it so odd. I’m not sure that’s enough to recommend it to anyone who has to buy a ticket to see it. Swiss Army Man is an independent American film, the feature debut of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who wrote and directed it. The duo made their name with TV commercials and music videos. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where some audience members walked out, and where the directors won an award.
It is a challenging film to review because there’s no background guide for potential viewers. Most people, for example, will know what a Tarzan film is about. As a viewer of Swiss Army Man, I think I would have joined the walkout. Yet if other people think this absurdist, existential film is brilliant, I won’t be surprised. One reason for that is it’s a film unlike any other.
It opens with a startling scene. A man marooned on a deserted island is about to hang himself. He stands awkwardly on an esky, a rope around his neck. Suddenly he sees the body of another man washed up on the beach and he — just — manages to avoid suicide and goes to investigate. We learn the marooned man is called Hank (Paul Dano, who was Beach Boy Brian Wilson in the recent Love & Mercy). He calls the flotsam man Manny (Daniel Rad- cliffe continuing his interesting post-Potter career). Both actors are convincing in difficult roles.
It looks like Manny is dead. He’s also full of flatulence, which takes the Weekend at Bernie’s idea to a new level, though I found it hard to bear. Hank climbs aboard Manny and rides him — a gas-powered jet ski — to unoccupied landfall. From here he carries Manny on his back in a trek to find help (maybe), and the two have serious conversations about the meaning of life. Because Manny starts talking, and moving. Or does he? “You are a miracle … or am I just hallucinating?’’ Hank asks.
The title refers to the many functions Manny offers, from the fire-igniting gas emissions, to a regurgitation of drinking water, to arms that chop and even shoot. He’s a “multipurpose tool guy’’. He may have a wife or girlfriend, or then the woman in question may be a girl in Hank’s mind, and perhaps his past. Hank — and Manny — explore this in an imaginative and disturbing way.
There is a fair bit of discussion about sex, masturbation and, well, poop. Manny’s penis seems to work like a compass. I didn’t like much of this either, but what I found harder to understand was the perspective. If Manny is dead, then we shouldn’t see him the way we do. We see him with our own eyes, not just through Hank’s. I suspect the directors don’t care about this. It’s their film, made in their way for their purposes, and perhaps they are right to think like that. Whether what we see is real or a dream or the inside of one man’s mind or something else altogether is for us to decide.
There are moments, especially towards the end, when Hank’s behaviour comes across, to my eye at least, as a moving examination of mental illness, of isolation in the ordinary world, of a young man misunderstood by his father. I could have done with more of that, and less of a farting corpse.
THE FLASHBACK MOMENT WHERE TYRO TARZAN FIRST SEDUCES YOUNG JANE IS MUCH FUNNIER THAN IT SHOULD BE
Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard in The
Legend of Tarzan, above; Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man, left