A sort of modern day Tarzan for the city folk, Wild Thing (1987) trades on the excess schlock that has come to define much ‘80s action-drama flicks. Frustratingly preposterous as it is weak on impact, the John Sayles-written film tells the story of a young boy who’s left to fend for himself after he’s orphaned as a toddler by ruthless killers. This has strong shades of Batman to it, though it isn’t nearly as compelling, moody or wrought with tension.
“Wild Thing”, as he’s called (and played by Robert Knepper), skulks around the Bronx, basically doing nothing but getting by, either by swiping food, squatting in abandoned buildings and stroking his considerably docile pet cat. Sometimes he saves lives. Armed with a homemade crossbow and some seemingly endless length of twine, Wild Thing scales the heights of New York City’s buildings, peering into windows and hunting down drug lords who haunt the premises.
A rather clumsily sketched storyline of a social worker from out of town who takes up a position at a Bronx youth centre provides the love-interest angle. Jane (Kathleen Quinlan) is the curious, naïve small-town girl who becomes enamoured by the mysterious wild man; she gets in over her head when, after having been saved from a bunch of thugs by Wild Thing, she pursues her object of affection throughout the city. The cops who unsuccessfully tail Wild Thing believe him to be responsible for a series of crimes committed by crime boss Chopper (Robert Davi), a sleazy, high-maintenance drug lord who runs a prostitution ring on the side. It takes a while for everyone to figure out that Chopper is connected to the drug and prostitution ring, Jane’s assault by the street thugs and the murder of Wild Thing’s parents.
This might have been a breezy exercise in campy, self-indulgent fun – if it weren’t for the obtrusively inane dialogue and the hackneyed acting all round. Wild Thing’s most ghastly and awkward moments come courtesy of the love scenes between Jane and her wide-eyed wild-man. Wild Thing naively refers to sex as “body-bumping” and we are subjected to a painfully embarrassing display of sexual indoctrination ever committed to a coming-of-age film, where coming-of-age here implies learning to eat with utensils. It’s a stupidly inelegant moment that’s played up for a funky and coy sensuality but appears gauche and ungainly; you can expect this kind of dull-witted humour in the worst of ‘80s camp.
Chopper’s hideout is raided a few times by the police and with all the clear evidence and testimonials against him, they can’t seem to pin him for anything. This might have something to do with the fact that Chopper’s crimes are being covered up by a conspiring police chief (who, alongside Chopper, is responsible for the death of Wild Thing’s parents). But there’s too much weighing the crime boss down to keep his records clear and one man on the force is not going to be able to cover for such a considerable amount of crime.
At some point Jane is kidnapped by Chopper and his goons and it is up to both the hideously inept police department and Wild Thing to put two and two together and figure out where she is. The final showdown ends in predictable fashion and the conclusion feels like anticlimactic finalé of an anaemic circus show.
There are some points of interest in Wild Thing; namely, the inner city location scenery in which the story is situated. There’s a generous spread of brightly-coloured old-school graffiti that covers the building walls all over the city. There’s also the presence of punked-out street kids (including a young, fresh-faced Cree Summer wearing day-glow neon and a requisite bad attitude) that litter the avenues and alleyways. They’re nowhere near an accurate representation of what New York street life is (or was) all about. But they sure are fun to watch.
Olive Films’ transfer does show signs of age; you can see the presence of some dirt and speckles, especially during the opening ten minutes or so of the film. But colours are rendered nicely and stand out brightly and fresh, particularly in the displays of graffiti throughout the city. There are some instances of grain that seem a little thick at times, but for the most part the picture is clean. Sound and dialogue come through clearly and the music and sound effects have a nice aural range, especially during the action sequences. There are no extras on the disc.
From the wide range of ‘80s cheese to choose from, Wild Thing offers very little of the tang that makes the slightly better ‘80s schlock a little more fun to watch. It was a nice idea: Tarzan meets Jane in the urban concrete jungle. But it probably looked a lot better on paper than it does on celluloid. A clear and unmistakable miss.