Tuesday, May 20, 2008
4 Color Cinema
Inspired by Mike Sterling's recent viewing, I decided to finally get around to posting my thoughts on this film, which I re-watched a few months back. I remember when The Phantom was first coming out, you couldn't flip through an issue of anything, especially Wizard, and not see an ad for it, proclaiming that the Ghost-Who-Walks would "SLAM EVIL!" I never got if that was supposed to be impressive, or intimidating, or simply hilarious, but it certainly raised awareness. And by "awareness" I mean derisive shouts of "SLAM EVIL!" across comic shops nationwide.
Be that as it may, our story is about Kit Walker, the latest in the long line of Phantoms, which has been passed from father to son for 20 generations in the jungle nation of Bangalla. The Phantom lives in the Skull Cave, which is hidden in the dark and forbodding Deep Woods. From there, he strikes out at evil, using his athleticism, twin automatics, and the mysterious jungle legends of being "The Man Who Cannot Die" to combat pirates, murderers, and thieves. Kit finds himself mixed up in new intrigue when a group of goons attempt to pilfer a legendary crystal skull (yes, years before Indiana Jones!), which leads to a run-in with his ex-girlfriend Diana Palmer and a trip to New York to stop the evil Xander Drax from achieving ultimate power.
Overall, this offering is something of a mixed bag. There's a lot of fun to be had, sure, but it's not the most expertly made or well-polished piece of entertainment you'll ever come across. The principles all turn in solid perfomances, especially Billy Zane, who looks and sounds like he stepped off the funny pages, and Treat Williams, who aggressivly gnaws on the scenery whenever and wherever he gets the opportunity. As Diana, Kristy Swanson could have been little more than a shrieking MacGuffin tied up to some deathtrap or another, but, true to the character from the strip, she is instead smart, resourceful, and brave beyond measure. The same cannot be said for the villianess pilot Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones, a few years before The Mask Of Zorro), who is given little to do beyond vamp and fails to deliver anything more than that.
The photography and scenery is spectacular, evocative of the classic era of jungle documentaries from the 20s and 30s, but in full lush colors. There's a lot of fighting and stunts, as is to be expected, and Zane is buff enough (he eschewed a Batman-esque muscle suit) to make most of it believable -- save a jump from a crashing plane onto his horse, Hero, which strains credibility even a film of this nature. The costuming similarly does a great job of capturing the period without looking like a parody. The Phantom's costume is faithful to the strip, which I applaud, as it could have just as easily be made black or dark grey. The purple really pops against the greens of the Deep Woods or the greys and whites of New York City.
The Phantom holds several distinctions over it's later -- more successful -- brethren, not the least of which is it's tone. Though not a comedy, there is a lot of humor to be found here; the term "light-hearted adventure" seems an appropriate label for the proceedings. Further, it is a period piece, echoing to old-school pulp adventure serials and their descandants, such as the aformentioned Indiana Jones films as well as contemporaries like The Shadow and The Rocketeer. These elements are somewhat polarizing -- depending on one's taste, you may really dig, or really groan at the slightly-less-serious take. Personally, I think that playing up the swashbuckling attitude works in the film's favor. Your mileage may vary. The Phantom is a pulpy product, so treating him in a pulpy manner works. Such sentiment is helped immeasurably by Zane's perfomance, which is so likeable that you tend to just roll with it once things get going (and usually end up cheering for him to lay someone out).
So, as I said, it's a mixed bag. I think that if you are looking for something light and fun, with a lot of high adventure and peril without any serious examination of character or emotion, then The Phantom would be a good choice. It doesn't require a huge investment on the part of the viewer, and it delivers exactly what it sets out to achieve: a fun, fast-paced romp through the jungle, both tropical and urban. Worth checking out, just don't go in expecting it to beat the world.
(Re-watching this film and writing this post has further inspired me to take a second look at the two aforementioned contemporaries, The Shadow and The Rocketeer, so hopefully you'll be able to hear about those in future installments.)