‘Tarzan’ swings through NYC to fight crime

Times Staff Writer

To get some perspective on “Tarzan,” which premieres Sunday on the WB and relates the ape man’s adventures in the contemporary concrete jungle its natives call “Manhattan,” I watched “Tarzan’s New York Adventure,” a 1942 movie starring Johnny Weissmuller and a chimpanzee.

In “Tarzan’s New York Adventure,” Tarzan and Jane -- and Cheetah, naturally -- go to the big city in search of Boy, who has been kidnapped by evil circus men. Tarzan is amazed by taxis and telephones. He takes a shower in his nice new suit. He breaks out of a room where he is being held prisoner and scales the side of a building. He dives off the Brooklyn Bridge. “White man law lots of words,” says Tarzan. “Jungle law easy.” There are elephants, lions and that crazy chimpanzee.

In the premiere episode of the WB’s “Tarzan,” NYPD Det. Jane Porter (Sarah Wayne Callies) first sees Tarzan (Travis Fimmel) as he shares a late supper with a pack of wild dogs in the East Village, having just escaped the clutches of his pathologically protective billionaire uncle, Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi of “The X-Files”), the head of Greystoke Industries and the man who has ripped him from his jungle home.

Tarzan breaks through the window of a room in which he is being held prisoner and scales the side of a building. He goes to a restaurant inappropriately dressed. Drummers in Times Square make him nostalgic for the old country. He saves Jane from a killer. Except for a dead gorilla and those hungry dogs, there are no animals in it at all.

The 2003 edition has the edge on the 1942 in terms of raw excitement -- the opening minutes, as the half-seen jungle king makes his first escape from urban captivity, are fantastically well executed and gripping as, for that matter, are all the action sequences. And it’s sexy enough -- he’s the least-dressed character in modern fiction after all, and we get a good look at Jane’s navel as well. But it does not have any elephants, or much humor, or a sense of the absurdity of its premise. It could use a chimpanzee.


We have seen much of this before, of course. The natural man in the unnatural metropolis is the basis of works as diverse as “Crocodile Dundee,” “Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town,” “McCloud” and that Billy Ray Cyrus series on PAX. This latest Tarzan will be perhaps a little more unpredictable than those various forebears. At the same time, given that its main character is a naive longhaired beauty who remains in New York for the sake of a crush -- for this Tarzan, it’s love at first sniff -- the show it perhaps most resembles is ... “Felicity.”

Even Calvin Klein underwear model Fimmel has his Tarzanic precedent in Joe Lara, who modeled for Armani and Versace before starring in the 1989 TV movie “Tarzan in Manhattan” -- yes, that does sound familiar -- and the syndicated “Tarzan: The Epic Adventures.” Notwithstanding that he was already famous in underwear-model-watching circles, it is entirely likely that Fimmel will be merely the latest in a long string of actors -- Lara, Elmo Lincoln, Jock Mahoney, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Mike Henry, Miles O’Keefe, Ron Ely and Weissmuller, among, I am afraid to say, others -- who will eventually be remembered only because they once played Tarzan.

But the ride may last a while. One unofficial “Tarzan” Web site claims to have already received more than 1 million hits. The producers have reportedly taken steps to make subsequent episodes a little more fun and have hired Lucy Lawless, the warrior princess formerly known as Xena, to play Tarzan’s Aunt Kathleen, a smart move that.

And Fimmel is not half bad. He holds the screen at least as well as Callies, who looks stunned a lot of the time. It’s not wholly inappropriate that he delivers his lines as if he had little prior use for the English language. He uses that smoldering hooded gaze associated with Lauren Bacall to great effect and moves with undeniable simian grace -- though whenever he keeps still for more than a couple of seconds, he does start to look like a man with some underwear to sell you.

It’s almost too obvious that Tarzan would be made, as he will be here, a crime fighter. With his mythic origin, impressive chest expansion and special powers, he’s the very model of a modern superhero, and New York can always use an extra hand. But it’s disappointing too. TV needs another cop show like Tarzan needs -- well, Tarzan doesn’t need anything. And there’s so much else to do in the city. He could take in a musical. He could go skating at Rockefeller Center. He could become an underwear model even -- now that would be a twist. Or, with that body: governor!


Where: The WB

When: Sundays, 9 p.m.

Rating: TV-PGV (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for violence).

Travis Fimmel...Tarzan/John Clayton

Sarah Wayne Callies...Jane Porter

Mitch Pileggi...Richard Clayton

Miguel A. Nunez...Sam Sullivan

Lucy Lawless...Kathleen Clayton

Executive producers, Laura Ziskin, David Gerber, P.K. Simonds. Director (tonight’s episode), David Nutter. Writer (tonight’s episode), Eric Kripke. Character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.