The Phantom

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Director Simon Wincer, 1996.
Starring Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, James Remar, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Patrick McGoohan.
96 mins.

New York tycoon and mob boss Xander Drax is searching the globe for the mystical Skulls of Touganda, which he believes will give him tremendous powers. Newspaper editor Dave Palmer learns of his scheme and sends out his daughter Diana to investigate – and she is aided by a seemingly immortal figure known as the Ghost Who Walks….

FIRST APPEARING IN newspaper comic strips in 1936, jungle-based do-gooder the Phantom is arguably the very first superhero, beating Superman to the punch by two years. Writer Lee Falk’s creation is the twenty-first in a long line of domino-masked adventurers to take the name, a legacy passed down from father to son for centuries. A printing error caused his costume – planned to be camouflage green – to come out purple, and it stuck; eighty years on, he’s still the only prominent superhero to wear the colour.

Apart from a 1943 black and white serial (and it’s sequel, in which the hero was renamed Captain Africa when the rights expired), the Phantom didn’t make it to the big screen until 1996. Advertising at the time suggested the dark antics of Batman, the pre-eminent cinematic superhero of the period, but the Phantom is less a vengeful figure of the night, and more Indiana Jones in a purple bodysuit; the movie an endless series of cliff-hangers, last-second escapes and breathless rescues. It wastes little time with the hero’s origin story either; after a two-minute pre-credit info-dump, it’s straight down to business.

Almost every serial staple pops up, including some that even Indy missed; gangsters, skeletons, pirates, secret caves, sharks, tigers, wolves, sword fights, hidden treasure, cannonballs, biplanes, noble natives, ancient artifacts with mystical powers, crumbling rope bridges above deadly ravines…and how’s this for a climax; the Phantom fights not one, not two, but three arch-villains in a row. When was the last time Batman did that?

Billy Zane is spot-on as the zen-like crusader, a purer, nobler hero than most. Sincere and cheerful, he gives advice to kids like, ‘Stay away from bad guys,’ and only uses his twin pistols to shoot the guns out of the hands of his foes.  He’s such a bloody good bloke, you can imagine that after a day chasing through the jungle on his white steed, he goes home and listens to the Carpenters. Kristy Swanson, smart, two-fisted and aware of the ludicrousness of the situation, is the best Tom Boy Lois Lane there never was. As the indigo crime-basher’s guidance-giving ghost-dad, Patrick McGoohan is nicely acerbic, admonishing his son for everything from not stopping the baddies to his lack of success with women.

Almost every serial staple pops up, including some that even Indy missed

The opposing team come up short though. Treat William’s Xander Drax is every smooth 40’s playboy wrapped into one – trouble is, he’s never anything but affably likeable, and never comes across as a threat; even when casually spearing his underworld colleagues, or disintegrating them with lasers. Catherine Zeta-Jones hams it up as his bad-girl consort and leader of a band of female air pirates, and James Remar is unconvincing at best as their head thug and tomb raider – a shame as his Indiana-Jones-gone-to-seed could’ve been something. It’s left to Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, appearing in the third act, to add some sneering, vehement villainy to the proceedings (typical dialogue: ‘Ghost Who Walks? I’ll cut you off at the knee-!’).

While it takes it’s cue from Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Phantom is not quite up to Spielberg standards. Set pieces are fun but there are no classics, and the editing is a little saggy in places, disrupting the momentum. It also lacks a certain edge – nasty things happen in the Indy movies to show exactly what will befall our hero if he fails, and more of that was required here.

More evocative visuals wouldn’t have gone amiss either. It looks like a TV movie, never making good use of the jungle settings or art deco New York, and the ancient caves which should be shadowy and atmospheric just look like sets. Though Drax threatens the entire world, it all feels small scale. His choice of weapons – the sacred skulls – aren’t very impressive McGuffins, lacking the mystique of the Ark of the Covenant or Holy Grail.

Despite such drawbacks, it’s hard to dislike The Phantom; if it’s all a bit too light-weight and leisurely to be truly thrilling, it’s good-natured enthusiasm and love of the material make for an enjoyable watch. Sometimes you don’t want to see a superhero trapped in an identity crisis, or reflecting on how isolated they are from those they protect; sometimes you just want to see a man in a mask fight a bunch of thugs, get rescued by his pet wolf, escape in a bi-plane, and then jump down onto a galloping horse just before the plane explodes.

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Review by Ulysses Gamma-Hose

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