Tarzan: The Pilot (2003) – Review

In the past one hundred years there have been many versions of Tarzan, from the big screen to the small one, but in 2003 the WB Network decided to update the Tarzan story to a modern setting with a whole new origin story, and with the added twist of making it part police procedural. That is certainly an interesting idea, as is casting an Australian ex-Calvin Klein model in the title role, but the show only lasted eight episodes before being cancelled which begs the question, “Just how bad was it?” The show’s creator Eric Kripke, who would later go onto to create the long running show Supernatural, has made his feelings clear calling it, “A piece of crap.” But is it really that bad?

WB Tarzan

The pilot begins with a very good cold open. Somewhere in New York City a half-naked man is tied to a table in some kind of lab, and he is surrounded by nervous men with guns. A man in a lab coat enters the room to “borrow” some blood from the bound man, but apparently the captive does not take it too well.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-14h36m19s765I’m betting his HMO will not cover this.

The man is of course Tarzan (Travis Fimmel), and he explodes out of the operating room in a bid to escape this high rise prison. I’ll certainly give the producers credit at least one thing, and that is for providing fight choreography that is bloody brilliant.  Travis Fimmel and the stunt team do fantastic work and of things wrong with this show the action scenes are not one of them. Tarzan flees to roof of this building, where he must take out even more security forces, before finally escaping. The last shot of the cold open is a stunning reveal that really hooks fans of Tarzan in.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-14h46m59s391The show’s chief villain is Greystoke, Tarzan’s family.

We are then introduced to Detective Jane Porter (Sarah Wayne Callies) who lives in a nice Manhattan apartment with her younger sister Nicki (Leighton Meester). Jane’s introduction gives me my first signs of foreboding; we first see her working out so that we can believe she could be a credible badass if needed, but then in the very next moment she’s showing her sister a news article about her boyfriend Detective Michael Foster (Johnny Messner) and dreaming about being as good as him. Feminism on television still needed a little work.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-14h53m37s906“Hey sis, isn’t my hunky boyfriend just the best?”

Said boyfriend is trying to catch this crazy arsonist known as The Inferno Killer (Kevin Durand), and even Jane’s partner, Detective Sam Sullivan (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), is jealous of such a high profile case. Sam also thinks that this case, and an old case of his, could be connected. Their Captain (Gary Chalk) doesn’t have time for such silly speculations and assigns them to more suitable cases, like tracking down a pack of dogs that are terrorizing a neighbourhood. It’s while investigating this case of canine malfeasance that Jane first encounters Tarzan. They discover this half naked guy in an alley eating stolen food with a bunch of dogs, and Jane’s immediate reaction is to chase after and attempt to arrest this dude. (The NYPD are apparently harsh on the homeless problem as that’s what Tarzan looked like at a glance) When he escapes up the side of a building with the agility of a monkey she realizes this is no ordinary hobo.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-15h11m30s660He’s an incredibly dreamy looking hobo.

Jane strains to run him down but when she tries to attempt a jump between buildings to follow him she doesn’t quite make it, and Tarzan has to come back to rescue her, pulling her up with just one hand. Instead of a thank you Jane pulls out her gun and tells him, “You are under arrest.” Then she faints. *sigh* Just ten minutes in and Jane is certainly not showing us that she is any kind of supercop. Would any cop show out there, with a male in this role, have had him faint like this? Unless it was for some comic relief moment the answer is definitely no. In the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films Jane was most definitely from the damsel in distress school of femininity, but why would a show that is updating the story, and making Jane a police detective, go in that direction? In the Tarzan books by Burroughs Jane eventually became a badass in her own right, so why do so many adaptations fail to make her a strong independent character. And what does this show’s Tarzan do when faced with an unconscious and attractive woman?

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-15h27m47s101He gropes her.

What in the bloody hell? This does not make me sympathetic to whatever plight is facing this Tarzan.  Feeling up an unconscious woman is not cool in anyone’s book. It is not helped by the fact that throughout this episode he is constantly petting or smelling her hair as if personal space isn’t something he is familiar with. And sure you are all saying, “But Mike, he was raised in the jungle and knows no better!” And you’d be right, but my problem is not with Tarzan’s action but with Jane’s. She just gets a dreamy faraway look in her eyes instead of slapping the creep like any self-respecting person would do.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-18h51m16s775Your actions normally would result in a knee to the groin, but you’re just too damn hunky.”

Before Jane can embarrass herself further a black helicopter arrives, a group of Greystoke security goons rappel down, Tarzan is shot with a tranq, and then taken away. A dropped locket, containing a picture of John Clayton, his wife and little boy leads her to Greystoke Industries and its powerful CEO Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi). Jane learns from Richard that years ago his brother, and head of Greystoke Industries, disappeared while on a photo safari with his family while they were flying across the Congo. Years later Richard and his people discovered the crashed plane, but also nearby was their surprisingly not dead son John, now all grown up, mentally unstable and mute. Richard takes Jane to see John/Tarzan but he is a bit shocked when the supposedly mute man leaps up and says, “Hello.”

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-19h18m00s686“Well, Jane have the lambs stopped screaming?”

Later Tarzan once again escapes his uncle’s penthouse mansion (he should really look into better security), and then he crashes a romantic dinner date between Jane and her detective boyfriend. Now how did he find her in amongst all the buildings in New York City you may ask, well as much as I can tell he has some kind of “Spider-Sense” or I guess “Jane-Sense” would be more accurate.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-19h25m52s038Everyone’s friendly neighbourhood Ape-Man.

Jane and Tarzan take a walk through Central Park and when she asks how Tarzan found her his response is, “I hunt. I hunted for you.” And for some reason that is considered romantic and not incredibly creepy. This is my biggest problem with this pilot; they rush the romance element way to fast. Travis Fimmel and Sarah Wayne Callies (who we now know as Lori from The Walking Dead) do have excellent chemistry together, but their love story is treated almost like a psychic bond, and for me that makes it infinitely less interesting. Though to be fair their psychic bond is the only real way to explain how when Jane cries out in terror Tarzan can hear from inside a jail cell across town. As mentioned the action sequences are excellent, and when Tarzan must take on the Inferno Killer it’s a real showstopper, but Jane herself just gets knocked down and pinned beneath a shelving unit.

vlcsnap-2015-12-15-19h54m18s156What are the chances of an elephant stampede rescue?

As pilots go it’s got a lot going for it. Great action, a mystery to solve, and a new mythology to the Tarzan story, all the trimmings for good television, and it does open up several interesting questions. What nefarious reasons does Richard Clayton have for hunting down his nephew and keeping him locked away? Will Jane dump her fiancée for this jungle dreamboat? Can Tarzan make a home for himself in the concrete jungle? So join me over the next eight weeks as I take a look at these eight episodes of a series forgotten by most, or at least Eric Kripke wishes were forgotten by most.


Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.

  • freethinkingpatriot

    The only good thing about this version of Tarzan is that it finally superseded that gawd-awful Bo Derek movie as the worst version EVER. (The Derek version is still pretty bad, but there was at least some minimal effort to remain somewhat faithful to past versions.)

    • Michael Brooks

      Well you can’t fault this show for not being faithful to past versions as it’s a modern update with Jane now a New York cop, but you can fault it for being really bad television. Though I’d say the Derek version is still the worst Tarzan because neither leads in that movie can act, and also at no point in the television show does Jane have a three-way with Tarzan and an orangutan, which is what happens with Bo Derek.

      • freethinkingpatriot

        Okay, just to clarify and in the interest of being as fair as possible to a film that I still despise even after all these years: There is NO depiction of a three-way between Tarzan, Jane and an orangutan in the Bo Derek version of “Tarzan The Ape Man.” There is a shot of the three of them playing and walking along a beach together, and I suppose that if one wishes to believe that this scene implies that there either has been or is about to be an act of bestiality committed then the viewer is free to make that assumption. But that says far more about the viewer than it does about the movie. I’m not looking to pick a fight, mind you, just making an observation. (And for what it’s worth, I’m with you 100 percent on the leads’ acting abilities – or lack thereof. If Bo Derek didn’t look so good naked, she never would have had a career in the movies… and even then I never thought her to be the perfect “10” she was portrayed as being in the movie of that name. But that’s just me, I guess…

        • Michael Brooks

          True there is no “sexual” three-way between Bo Derek and the orangutan, but you have to admit that the footage during the end credits of them cavorting naked with the ape is damn bizarre. And there is still that one shot where a chimp actually goes to suck Derek’s nipple. Which has to be considered weird to keep in a film by anyone’s standards. So I’m making no more assumptions than the filmmakers were, that Bo Derek is hot and apes like her…a lot.