Before there was THE LEGEND OF TARZAN there were over 200 other Tarzan movies, and before those there were 26 books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and books by other people, and radio plays and cartoons and records and cereals and pajamas. But for the purposes of Summer 2016: Origins I wanted to watch the previous live action Tarzan, the Tarzan movie of the ’90s, TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY (1998) starring Casper Van Dien (followup to his debut STARSHIP TROOPERS).
It turns out some of the things I liked about LEGEND’s approach had already been done in this one. LOST CITY begins with Tarzan already a lord and having to return to the jungle and his old ways to help somebody. It also has a respect for the native African characters, showing them as his close friends who he comes to help. And it has bad guys who are arrogant European assholes plundering Africa (although they’re just stealing diamonds, not abusing workers/enslaving people like in LEGEND). They start by stealing from graves, which does not go over well with the locals.
The story starts a week before John Tarzan is engaged to marry Jane (Jane March, COLOR OF NIGHT, no doubt cast because her name made it easier to do Mike Leigh style improv). He’s out celebrating with the boys when he receives a vision from his old friend Mugambe (Winston Ntshona, GANDHI, A DRY WHITE SEASON). At first Jane doesn’t seem right for Tarzan because she’s pissed and ridicules him about having visions. She’s not going to postpone the wedding because of a vision, but he’s not gonna leave his friends in a lurch. He has to go.
For a minute I thought this was gonna be a wacky ticking clock where he has to go off and stop the ravaging of the legendary treasures of Opar and get back in time for the wedding, like THE HANGOVER with more than one tiger. Instead, Jane follows her man to his childhood home, an admission that she was wrong and that they can put off the wedding until stopping the fucking Mzungus.
Tarzan is down. After thanking the white boat captain who brings him to Africa, he goes over and shakes the local boatman’s hand, speaking to him in Swahili.
Later, when Mugambe informs Tarzan that the captain has been killed, Tarzan asks “What about the man who worked for him?” He cares as much or more about the African worker than the white boss.
I like when he rides into the village on an elephant and tries to play cool. Yeah, I’m a white dude, I’m wearing white dude clothes, but I know where I’m going, I’m totally comfortable, nothing to see here fellas. It’s like when you show up at school wearing your “Beat It” jacket the first time and you’re afraid everybody’s gonna laugh at you, but you hold your head up high. You gotta be you.
Turns out basically Mugambe called him because he’s their white friend. Yeah, Tarzan, he’s, uh… he’s pretty eccentric, but he’s the only white man we know. Mugambe wants Tarzan to go talk some sense into these graverobbers, and they’ll listen to him because he’s a white dude, right? Turns out not to be the case.
The bad guy is Nigel Ravens (Steve Waddington, also in SLEEPY HOLLOW with Van Dien), cold-hearted treasure hunter asshole. They do a good job of making you want to punch him or send wild jungle animals after him. He’s so obsessed with wanting to impress people that when Tarzan shows up in his tent to warn him to back off, he starts talking about the Tarzan paper he wrote and “perhaps you’ve heard of me?” Dude, of course he’s heard of you, he just walked up to your tent specifically looking for you. Later, when Ravens is trying to hit on Jane at a restaurant he berates the African waiter for not seating her next to a window, even though she’s perfectly happy with the table and there isn’t some rule that women should by by windows.
He’s like some relative that would embarrass you by being a pain in the ass to the waiter and then offering to pay the bill and undertipping. She doesn’t even know this guy.
Ravens does not heed Tarzan’s warning, so Tarzan sends some friends to fuck up his camp. First we see a lion, then an ostrich, and a zebra, and a whole bunch of animals. There’s a shot of a porcupine bobbling through, which I’d really like to know the backstory on. Was Tarzan saying, “All right guys, we’re gonna need all the help we can get. Everybody. Even you, porcupine”? Or was the porcupine like “Come on guys, I wanna help” and they’re going “Come on man, we’re large predators, we can scare them, you’re just a porcupine” but he goes anyway and they feel sorry for him so they don’t say anything? There’s alot of possibilities.
Van Dien isn’t very consistent with the British accent, but maybe that’s because Tarzan learned language among the animals. He’s a decent Tarzan, obviously comfortable going around shirtless, and he definitely has that unironic earnestness you need of a guy who talks to elephants and shit. This is the first Tarzan movie of the digital age, but before you could do decent digital animals, so it’s all real ones plus some pretty bad ape costumes. The major digital effects – a pyramid that erupts like a volcano, a morphing snake head monster – don’t hold up at all. They could’ve been on a Hercules episode maybe.
But at least it’s kinda cool that it’s a Tarzan story with some supernatural elements. Maybe the best example of that is when Tarzan is wounded and then there’s a nest of wasps and they start landing on him and it’s like, oh fuck, he gets completely covered in them, but it turns out to help him when the bad guys come by and don’t notice him under there. Then the bees fly off of him and form themselves into Mugambe. He’s magic!
To be honest though I thought it was cooler when I thought maybe he was just friends with those bees.
LEGEND OF TARZAN hugely benefited from the 18 years of technological advances since LOST CITY. Through a combination of show-offy digital stunt doubles and compositing of actual circus acrobats they’re able to depict Tarzan high above the jungle, swinging and flipping and skirting nimbly across branches. LOST CITY suffers from not knowing how to fake that type of shit. Director Carl Schenkel (KNIGHT MOVES, THE MIGHTY QUINN) musters up some awkward filmatism for Tarzan’s first vine-swinging arrival, with a bunch of camera wiggling and jarring cuts implying that he’s running around above before Van Dien finally swings in from pretty low. (He does seem to do the swinging stunts himself, at least.)
Tarzan swims alot. He does a flip and kicks a gun out of a guy’s hand. He lassos a dude and pulls him up into the trees. He does a little clicking sound to talk to elephants. He climbs up and down buildings. He shares his childhood treehouse with Jane, and there’s a chimp there who steals her dresses. A snake shows up and scares her and it’s an old buddy of his. But later there are other snakes who he doesn’t know and those guys are fucking assholes.
Because he’s a Lord and what not he doesn’t go full loincloth the whole time. He wears pants for a while. Sometimes he even wears a shirt, but he keeps it unbuttoned and untucked. He’s not a tourist. He grew up here.
This is weird, but I think Disney’s TARZAN might’ve based the look of their Jane on Jane March here. Then they gave her more personality. LOST CITY does make an effort to modernize and toughen her a little. Yes, she’s afraid of the snake, but she taught herself to shoot guns and claims to drink scotch and smoke cigars. Tarzan was not aware of this, so they must have one of those old fashioned engagements where they actually don’t know each other very well. In my opinion this whole adventure was important for their relationship. They get to know each other better, she gets to see his old neighborhood, try out vine swinging and meet new people.
The script is credited to Bayard Johnson, who had already done two jungle movies (DAMNED RIVER and THE SECOND JUNGLE BOOK: MOWGLI & BALOO), and J. Anderson Black. Johnson died earlier this year at only 63. Apparently he grew up in Seattle and was an author and musician who did albums with Timothy Leary and Russel Means. Black has no other IMDb credits, and may or may not be a working author with books about jewelry, fashion, golfing and Leonardo Dicaprio.
Anyway, I’m curious about them because I was really thinking that this scene:
…must’ve been written while reading an Ain’t It Cool News story about the friendly “SIZE DOES MATTER” vs. “STORY DOES MATTER” rivalry between the makers of GODZILLA (1999) and THE PHANTOM MENACE. But the timeline probly doesn’t work out.
I don’t personally consider TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY to be a very good movie, but if you’re like me you will have some mild appreciation for it as an old fashioned adventure done in a more modern style. You got your guy talking to animals, your torch-lit journey through underground tombs, your waterslide tunnel thing, your bland English villain, your dynamite, your flaming arrows.
One thing that is unusual and cool about this particular Tarzan movie is that it was filmed in actual Africa. They have many sweeping shots of the scenery, trees and animals and stuff. Combined with the old fashioned adventure and the cool white guy helping the Africans get their treasures back from the uncool white guys it reminds me of THE PHANTOM. And I actually wondered for a second if this was the same cave set where the Phantom fights the pirates.
But THE PHANTOM has a much peppier feel, more humor and pulpy goofiness like bad guys that switch sides. If you only see one Africa/white savior/outdated pulp hero movie of the ’90s, for fuck’s sake for sure I insist that you are definitely watching THE PHANTOM. If you watch two then TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY is also available.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.