Tarzan in Manhattan (1989): Concrete Bungle

Matty half-heartedly swings through NYC with Joe Lara and Tony Curtis.

Seven years before husband and wife producers Max and Micheline Keller, founders of the eponymous Keller Entertainment Group, and star Joe Lara teamed for the sadly short-lived syndicated TV series Tarzan: The Epic Adventures (1996), they made TARZAN IN MANHATTAN: a CBS TV movie intended as a pilot for an altogether different show about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic (vine) swinger that, ultimately, never happened. In retrospect, it’s just as well, really. While an enjoyable lil’ watch for a variety of reasons, veteran TV helmer Michael Schultz’s surprisingly duff direction isn’t one of them, and it’s easy to see why CBS would pass on taking Tarzan in Manhattan to series if Schultz’s zestless handling of the material was to be the tonal and stylistic template. 

There’s no oomph or spark. What Schultz slaps in front of the camera is captured as if it’s a major inconvenience, to the point where you can almost hear him sighing between shots. Now, I’m just surmising here; I don’t actually know whether Schultz was disinterested in Tarzan in Manhattan or not but, bugger me — the artless crash zooms, the kind of which would embarrass even Jess Franco, and the generally rather drab corporate video aesthetic, all flat and texture free, sure suggest as much. At the very least, it’s the work of a man who hasn’t read the script properly because Anna Sandor and William Gough’s teleplay [1] contains a lot of fun stuff that cries for a livelier and more colourful touch — particularly the Crocodile Dundee (1986)-inspired pockets of genuinely funny fish out of water comedy as Lara’s titular chest-thumper gets to grips with life in the city. Yes, the sentiment of the real jungle being a concrete one is heavy-handed, but it does result in such giddy highlights as Lara being whooped, jeered, and cat-called as he shuttles along 42nd Street on the roof of a greyhound bus, and jumping out of his skin when he inadvertently cranks a stereo to full volume.

Plucked from three-hundred other hopefuls to play Tarzan, Lara cuts a striking figure in a loincloth and submits an agreeable rookie performance. It’s nowhere near the calibre of his charismatic turn in the subsequent Epic Adventures, but, hey, that’s experience for you. Shredded and wild-maned, the former Jordache jeans model looks the part and, considering Lara’s sole screen appearance prior to Tarzan in Manhattan was a blink and you’ll miss him spot as a soldier in Action International Pictures’ oddball ‘Nam schlocker Night Wars (1988), the future Nu Image regular holds his own against Kim Crosby’s plucky, streetwise cabbie (Jane, natch) and an impishly over-the-top Tony Curtis. The film’s undeniable standout, Curtis is in fabulous scene-chewing form throughout as Jane’s father, Archimedes Porter: a private detective helping Lara to track down the nasty vivisectionist (Jan-Michael Vincent) who kidnapped his beloved chimp pal, Cheetah, and killed his gorilla mom, Kala (primate performer extraordinaire Don McLeod, who’d go on to appear as Bolgani the ape and a few other creatures in The Epic Adventures). Cracking wise and totally embracing his action hero foil status at the tender age of sixty-five, Curtis is everything Schultz’s direction isn’t, exuding enthusiasm and radiating a tremendous amount of warmth.

USA ● 1989 ● Action, Comedy, TVM ● 94mins

Joe Lara, Kim Crosby, Jan-Michael Vincet, and Tony Curtis ● Dir. Michael Schultz Wri. Anna Sandor and William Gough, from the stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs

[1] As an aside, Sandor and Gough would later script and produce a few episodes of another Tarzan show, Tarzan (1991 – 1995), which, although not shepherded by the Kellers, was very nearly fronted by Lara, who was bested to the title role by Wolf Larson. That, The Epic Adventures, this — a tangled web of Tarzy confusion or what!

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