Wild Thing

| July 9, 2015

The John Sayles-penned Wild Thing (1987) takes the Tarzan archetype out of the African jungles and places the titular Tarzan-surrogate Wild Thing (Robert Knepper, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 and Part 2) on the streets of a major city. Having witnessed his parents’ murders at the hands of a drug dealer and a corrupt cop at the age of three, Wild Thing becomes a homeless urban warrior raised by mad woman to fear the system and persist on that which he can find alone. He also, as it happens, learns to fight by studying a tai chi master and develops a distinctly Tarzan-ian predilection for mimicking animal sounds and swinging around buildings on ropes.

With Wild Thing cast as a shadow-dwelling vigilante a la Batman, the film offers an excitingly modern take on the Tarzan narrative. Unfortunately, said narrative is never quite as fun as it sounds, nor is it as much of an adventure tale as it rightly should be. This is mostly because the gritty and brooding Frank Miller-style atmosphere of the final product clashes immensely with the carryovers from Edgar Rice Burroughs. In particular, the film spends a lot of time on the personal traumas Wild Thing underwent as a child and emphasizes the tragedy of his resultant stunted development, which makes his romance with the film’s Jane highly inappropriate. After all, Wild Thing’s Jane (Kathleen Quinlan, Apollo 13) is in fact a social worker specializing in helping get troubled youth off the streets—troubled youths like Wild Thing himself!

Wild Thing is most certainly worth a watch, though, given the wealth of terrific ideas throughout. One effective world-building element in the story has Wild Thing’s legendary street status become the inspiration for a gang initiation: new recruits are forced to stay out an entire night in “The Zone,” where police won’t go and the supposedly shape-shifting Wild Thing lives. Wild Thing also makes his vigilante gadgets out of found objects. In the climax, for example, he employs an umbrella’s skeleton on the end of a rope and door knobs on a leather strap as weapons to great effect. With so many cool things populating the world of Wild Thing, I just wish the filmmakers hadn’t presented all the material so deadly seriously. There was a lot of fun to be had here, even in the face of Wild Thing’s tragedy.

Even still, Wild Thing is a unique and fascinating film that will most certainly find a new audience on its recent home video release from Olive Films. In particular, anyone keen on cinematic curiosities from the 1980s should really give Wild Thing a look, as this is an 80s movie through-and-through. It may be a film through which the filmmakers tried to achieve something and only partially succeeded, but hey, at least they tried! And that’s more than you can say for some filmmakers.

As mentioned above, Wild Thing is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films. What’s extremely exciting about the release is that Wild Thing has never been available on DVD, much less Blu-ray, until now. This makes Olive’s release of the film an act of conservation—more than a mere consumer product. Olive has been doing a lot of things to impress me lately and simple acts of conservation go a long way in my book. So I encourage you to support them in whatever releases remotely interest you that they might continue this trend of putting out obscure and underserved films.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD

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