Sunday, June 15, 2008

Slam Evil

Paramount's entertainingly old-fashioned PG adventure is based on the 1936 King Features comic strip hero created by Lee Falk. The masked, purple-garbed Phantom, known as The Ghost Who Walks by the local natives who believe him to be immortal, has patrolled the African jungles for over 400 years, protecting the area from poachers, thieves, killers and supernatural forces. The Phantom is not really immortal, however; the mantle (and costume) of the Phantom is merely passed down from generation to generation. Billy Zane, who projects appropriate earnestness, athleticism and joy at being a costumed hero (if little else), plays the Phantom of 1936, the 21st Ghost Who Walks, while television legend Patrick McGoohan appears in spirit form as Zane's father, Phantom #20, who dispenses advice.

The Phantom becomes involved in a plot by New York businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams) to track down three mythical skulls--made of gold, bronze and brass--containing mystical powers that Drax can use to rule the world. Kristy Swanson (the original BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) is Diana Palmer, perky niece of a New York newspaper owner who becomes involved in stopping Drax's plan and with the Phantom. Pirates, kidnappers, mobsters in pinstriped suits, sharks, fuel-depleted seaplanes and many other obstacles stand between the Phantom and his quest to prevent Drax's evil scheme, but he manages to pull through with daring aplomb.

Jeffrey Boam's screenplay is very reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films and THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. (he also wrote for those franchises), but remains faithful to the Phantom legend that predates most other superheroes more familiar to today's audiences (though Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman owes a great allegiance to him). THE PHANTOM is a beautiful film that owes a great debt to its Australian and Thai locations, and the costumes and production design that turn the Paramount lot into 1930s New York City are equally plush. Matter of fact, outside of Christopher Reeve as Superman, Zane's costume is the most attractive and believable I've ever seen on a filmed superhero, and the actor looks plausible behind the black mask and purple rubber. Those who claim that superhero costumes that look cool in the funny books, but silly in the "real world," need to look closely at Marlene Stewart's wardrobe skills here.

THE PHANTOM is the movie I wish the Batman films could be, and I like it better than any of those pictures. It's light, exciting, old-school adventure with a rousing David Newman score and a joie de vivre missing from contemporary comic book adaptations. Williams camps it up too much, making his megalomaniac more entertaining than intimidating, but he's capably aided by Catherine Zeta-Jones in her first big Hollywood film. THE PHANTOM is where I first saw her, and I predicted she would be both a major star and a terrific Bond girl. Well, I wasn't half bad.

Pegged as Paramount's big action blockbuster in the summer of 1996, THE PHANTOM was a bust, which I attribute to its awful "Slam Evil" marketing campaign. A money-loser in '96, it's a film worth reevaluating in the midst of Hollywood's current infatuation with comic book heroics. James Remar, Casey Siemaszko, Bill Smitrovich, Samantha Eggar and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa round out the spirited supporting cast.

1 comment:

J.D. said...

Yeah, I like this film too. It has its flaws, but like the version of THE SHADOW that came out around this time, it faithful recaptures a retro mood and atmosphere that I totally dig. Of all those retro/pulp/serial homages that came out in the 1990s, I think that THE ROCKETEER was the most successful creatively. It's a shame that it didn't do well at the box office as a sequel would have been great.