12 April 2013

The Last Time We Saw Tarzan: Tarzan and the Lost City

Tarzan and the Lost City (1998)
Directed by Carl Schenkel. Starring Casper Van Dien, Jane March, Steven Waddington.

We haven’t gotten a live-action theatrical Tarzan movie since 1998. As of a few days ago, hopes for one in the near future died when Warner Bros. halted development on a David Yates-directed project that sounded like it had promise. We will see the Lord of the Jungle back on the big screen eventually, but right now if we want to fall back on the last time it happened, we have to go to this: Tarzan and the Lost City, a mid-budget release that vanished quickly from theaters in April 1998 with a meager take and left little evidence of its existence behind. I was already an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan and well read in Tarzan’s adventures, and even I skipped out seeing this theatrically in 1998.

Did the film deserve better? As much as I’d love to answer “yes” and tell you it’s a minor-classic awaiting a cult following, Tarzan and the Lost City is a dull and cheap-looking affair. It stays true to Burroughs’s spirit most of the time, but when it makes a crazy swing into the supernatural to adhere closer to the Indiana Jones formula, it loses even the goodwill it gets from trying. It was pretty thin goodwill to begin with.

The set-up is a decent one, similar to the “crime story in the jungle” plots that Sy Weintraub used in his “New Look Tarzan” films of the 1960s, like Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. In 1913, a group of vicious European treasure hunters and mercenaries (whom the opening text crawl calls “bounty hunters” despite doing nothing resembling bounty hunting) raid African villages and tombs to find relics that will point the way to the hidden city of Opar, the “First Civilization.” Tarzan (Casper Van Dien), who has retired to England to take up his peerage as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and marry the lovely Jane Porter (Jane March), comes back to his birth land to stop the oppression of the natives at the cruel hands of the mercenary leader, Nigel Ravens (Steven Waddington, best known for his role in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans). Jane, for reasons unclear, follows her betrothed to Africa and ends up a captive among Ravens’ men, putting Tarzan in the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs situation of chasing down the villains who kidnapped his love.

On the surface, there is a lot of genuine ERB to go around here. Articulate Tarzan? Check. Vanished civilization in the wilds? Check. Sleazy European villain who nabs Jane? Check. Early twentieth-century setting? Check. Tarzan communicating with animals? Check. Cross-dressing chimpanzee comic relief? Well… that seems more in line with a Johnny Weissmuller film, but what they hey: Check.

But Tarzan and the Lost City looks more like a TV movie or a straight to video flick than a Burroughs epic. A low budget is not necessarily an impediment to a Tarzan movie; Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent were executed on skimpy budgets, but excelled at giving a hard edge to the Ape Man’s adventures that let audiences feel the danger, and also featured strong characterizations with casts to back them up. But director Carl Schenkel, who doesn’t have much notable on his resume except the Denzel Washington movie The Mighty Quinn, handles his Tarzan film with such breezy carelessness that it feels inconsequential and tailor-made for commercial breaks. Even though it was shot on location in South Africa, it appears like most of it was done in a studio arboretum.
Lead actor Casper Van Dien fits the TV mold: his Tarzan feels like he wandered in from a daytime soap opera like One Life to Live, where Van Dien once had a recurring role. In the late 1990s Van Dien still had potential to become a star from his leading role in Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. But he was cast in that movie explicitly because of his wooden TV-movie/Beverly Hills 90210 blandness, part of Verhoeven’s bizarre and at the time misunderstood subversion of Heinlein’s novel. Plunk Casper Van Dien down in a serious adventure movie and his limitations appear like red wine spilled on white carpet. He’s still getting work and I’m happy for the guy, but he never had big-screen leading man potential.

From the perspective of ERB fandom, which most viewers won’t share but which I will go into anyway because that’s why I watched this at all, the movie is deeply confused. The opening text crawl establishes the backstory from the novel Tarzan of the Apes. But Jane is presented as from Suffolk (“My roots will always be in England.”) instead of Baltimore, something the Disney animated movie the next year also did, and it seems she has never gone to Africa before. This isn’t explicit, but her reactions to the continent and her obliviousness to Tarzan’s cabin where his parents lived and where he taught himself to read certainly make it seem that she and John Clayton met after he came back from Africa. Jane and Tarzan act like a couple who have just met, despite their engagement in England, which further muddles exactly where in the Tarzan legacy this is supposed to take place. Of course, I can blame the distance between the two as just poor chemistry between Casper Van Dien and Jane March.

For viewers without the ERB background, the relationship between Jane and Tarzan will still seem a touch bewildering. When Tarzan tells his fiancée that he must return to Africa and she threatens to cancel the wedding if he does, the script takes it for granted that people already have an attachment to these specific versions of the characters and their deep love. It feels like a sequel to a movie made two years ago that nobody saw. Yet when the two meet up again in Africa, the film plays it like a new romance where they get to meet-cute and learn about each other. Huh? It would have worked better to throw out the opening in England and refashion the script as a new telling of how Tarzan and Jane Porter met. The Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) took that approach, and it worked.
Jane March, a former fashion model who also flirted with stardom in the 1990s after her appearance in The Lover, is one of the better Janes to appear on screen, which makes the fizzle between her and Van Dien frustrating. March is civilized, poised, and beautiful, and looks exactly the way I think Jane Porter should. She can get tough and handle a gun, but never barges into the cliché of the modern action heroine. March would have made a wonderful Jane in a better movie. One of the mercenaries agrees when he exclaims, “What a woman!”

The blatant fantasy elements are where the shaky movie totally collapses. Burroughs often put science-fiction spice into his Tarzan novels: miniature “ant men,” a race of humanoids with monkey tails, talking apes that wear jewelry, a trip to the Earth’s core, and prehistoric beasts. Movie adaptations usually ignore these. But outright magic has no place in a Tarzan story, and when Tarzan and the Lost City starts to layer it on thick the movie goes from bad to outright embarrassing. There is a slight hint of the supernatural at the opening, when Tarzan hears the “call” of Numa the Lion after Ravens’ men torch a village. But when the village shaman Mugambi turns himself into a swarm of bees, the lurch toward the impossible is too much to take. At the city of Opar, where Mugambi transforms into a goofy CGI giant cobra, a troop of magical warriors spring up from bones, and the villain suffers a supernatural comeuppance from the very object for which he lusted, it becomes clear the filmmakers only used Tarzan as a conduit to create an Indiana Jones imitation. The bad CGI of the late ‘90s was a spectacularly horrid species—watch Mortal Kombat: Annihilation for minute-by-minute examples if you dare—and the execrable quality of the VFX here adds to the insult of it turning up in the first place. The movie wasn’t exactly in “Cruise Elroy” mode before the finale, but I could think of few worse ways of wrapping up a Tarzan movie.

The Indiana Jones comparison works forward in time as well: the climax in Opar has striking similarities, in plot and visuals, to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This is a rare case where Crystal Skull comes up better in a comparison. I won’t accuse Lucas and Spielberg of copying Tarzan and the Lost City, since I’m sure they never saw it. (In fact, I think Lucas stopped watching other movies sometime around 1984.)
The movie gets marginally better in the scenes centered on its villains. Except for Nigel Ravens, none of the mercenaries have much character on the page, but the ensemble of actors gives them tics that make them memorable and far more enjoyable to watch than Van Dien’s Tarzan. Waddington plays well in the colonial marauder role that meshes with Burroughs’s style of villain. Waddington’s best baddie moment is when he purposely mistranslates something a native guide says to try to trick one of his racist men into shooting the poor guy. That’s a nice “hateable” moment, and the right kind of pettiness for this type of villain.

A few of the action scenes verge on getting interesting. The mercenaries pursuing Jane right up to the edge of a gigantic chasm is one of the brief moments where the location shooting shines through. Tarzan gets to pull one supremely badass move, when he intercepts a snake strike aimed at Jane. But the follow-through on this is awful: instead of Tarzan finding an ingenious jungle-craft way of stopping the venom in his veins, he slumps over unconscious until the village shaman finds him, so nobody would have had to write a real way out this!

If it’s a consolation—and most likely it isn’t—Tarzan and the Lost City is a superior jungle adventure than Congo three years before.