Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Phantom (1996)

At some point in time between the World Wars. Kit Walker (Billy Zane) is The Phantom aka The Ghost Who Walks, the newest in a long line of adventuring pulp-style heroes, ruling about some "native tribes" while wearing ugly purple costumes and having something of a skull fetish. When he's not chatting with the ghost of his father (Patrick McGoohan), Kit's in the habit of smiting evil in a semi-competent manner a bit too semi to not leave ghost dad rather exasperated from time to time. The evil Kit has to smite this time is a megalomaniac business tycoon from New York, the excellently named Xander Drax (Treat Williams).

Drax (not to be confused with Drax the Destroyer) and his merry band of evil-doers (including Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Remar) are trying to acquire three magical skulls that combine into a weapon of awesome supernatural power, with the usual resulting world domination dreams. Obviously, this sort of thing won't stand with the Phantom, nor with Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), the niece of a newspaper owner up to Drax's tricks. Diana, what with her having some actual survival skills (though not enough to not get kidnapped every ten minutes), is of course the perfect potential girlfriend for a pulp hero (and in fact, Kit and Diana know each other already, though that's a part of the script so useless to the proceedings I can only assume it is a left-over from an earlier script version), so face-punching, woman-rescuing, and romancing can ensue.

Simon Wincer's The Phantom is one of a handful of attempts made in the 90s to get at some of that old pulp magic by reviving long dead characters. Unfortunately none of these films was commercially successful enough to lead to sequels or a larger pulp and serial renaissance in the movies. The character of the phantom did of course start out in a newspaper strip, but in style and content, it's about as pure a pulp hero as you can find, though one lacking the craziness of The Spider as well as the cleverness of Doc Savage or The Shadow.

The movie at hand is generally entertaining in a very old-fashioned manner, and not really in the business of trying to change up much of import about the Phantom or its mythology. Though, to give the film its dues, it does pare the racist elements of the original down from "holy crap, seriously?" to "problematic" and attempts to make Diana slightly more than an object to be kidnapped and rescued. Unfortunately, and quite typically for this sort of endeavour, the film stops with this slight re-imagination about half-way, using the old "kidnapping of the heroine" cliché so much that said heroine's general poise and ability to kick a bit of ass are undermined for no good reason (surely, the script could find someone else to kidnap at least half of the time), which is a particular shame seeing how much Kristy Swanson seems to enjoy herself in her more heroic moments. That enjoyment stands quite in contrast to Zane's rather awkward performance that suggests an actor who can't forget that he's in a very silly adventure movie wearing a particularly silly costume.

The costume is rather emblematic of the film's other great weakness, set design and costuming that just isn't all that interesting, ending in a particularly lame villain lair that's mostly cramped and brown and without any interesting visual features. I'd have rather wished for more colour, imagination and an openness to at least be as silly as the Phantom's costume in the sets; after all, the film has no problem with being silly in everything else.

Still, if you're looking for a serial-style adventure movie, you can do much worse than The Phantom. It is at least well paced, acted with zest by an excellent bunch of character actors (excluding Zane whose perfect perfect teeth just aren't that impressing, as much as he shows them), and full of exactly the sort of stunts you'd expect.

No comments: