Movie Review: The Phantom (1996)
Of all the 1930s ur-superhero reclamation projects attempted in the wake of the box-office success of “Superman” (1978) and “Batman” (1989)—i.e., Flash Gordon, Lone Ranger, and The Shadow—this would have been voted least likely to succeed. The Phantom is problematic for so many reasons:
- He’s a white guy treated as a god by jungle natives
- He’s considered “The Ghost Who Walks” (which is kind of spooky) yet dresses in a skintight purple suit and Robin mask (which isn’t).
- Plus: skintight suit in the jungle? For the weight-loss?
- Plus: purple suit in the jungle? For the camouflage?
- Plus: the jungle? Who gives a shit about the jungle?
The Phantom was a comic strip creation rather than a comic book or radio/pulp creation, and creator Lee Falk simply tacked on 1930s accoutrement (skintight suit/mask) to the tropes of decades-old boys adventure stories (jungle, signet ring, kowtowing natives, dog sidekick). Put it this way: The Phantom was backwards-looking in the 1930s. What chance did he have 60 years later?
More: The ‘90s output of Aussie director Simon Wincer’s wasn’t exactly inspiring: “Quigley Down Under,” “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” “Free Willy,” “Lightning Jack” and “Operation Dumbo Drop.” It’s like a film festival in hell.
Ditto its lead. Billy Zane showed up during the second season of “Twin Peaks” and everyone went “Movie star!” Then he made one bad film after another—culminating in the 1994 Italian spoof “The Silence of the Hams,” where he plays FBI agent Jo Dee Fostar opposite Dom DeLuise’s Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza—and everyone thought, “OK, maybe not.”
And yet, for all that, “The Phantom” isn’t bad.
How The Phantom > Indiana Jones
There’s a light, humorous touch throughout and Wincer keeps things moving. We don’t get bogged down in the tons of backstory. Wincer, or screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, even saves the majority of exposition—the 400 years of Phantoms, and the latest, Kit Walker, is the 21st—for the very end.
Was Boam its saving grace? He wrote “The Dead Zone,” “Innerspace,” “The Lost Boys,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” so he seems to know his way around a story. He begins this one a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: 1930s, jungle, treasure hunters—but with bad guys seeking the treasure. It actually upends, or clarifies, a disturbing point in “Raiders.” Indiana Jones, the guy we root for, voted the second-greatest cinematic hero of all time by the American Film Institute, is actually a thief. Worse: He’s a first-world thief robbing a third-world country. He’s robbing from the poor to give to a rich university. Maybe he’s due for some revisionism.
The bad-guy treasure hunters here are led by Quill (perennial bad guy James Remar, who will always be Ganz from “48 Hrs.” to me), who berates a small native boy, makes him drive a truck across a shaky rope bridge, and claims to have killed the Phantom. (He did: the 20th, Kit's father.) In a cave deep in the jungle, they lose one man in retrieving a skull with glowing bejeweled eyes, then are pursued, not by natives as in “Raiders,” but by a white dude in a purple skintight suit riding a white horse. It’s the intro of the Phantom and it should’ve been cool. It’s not. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scene was greeted with laughter in 1996 movie theaters. At the same time, I’m not sure what else you do. Maybe not have the bad guys spooked? Since, you know, there’s nothing scary about The Phantom. He’s just a dude in a purple suit on a white horse in the jungle.
That said, the action scenes are well-done, and the rope bridge—a favorite trope of serials—makes a solid reappearance. Zane supposedly worked out for a year for the role and did such a good job they dispensed with the padded suit. It shows. Back in his skull cave, we see him sitting shirtless, and there’s not an ounce of fat on him. He looks supremely, nonchalantly dashing. I immediately thought “movie star” again.
Another smart decision: The Phantom isn’t a god to the native people but a friend. There’s no “swaying the native mind” with tricks and illusions, as in the 1943 serial. At the same time, one wonders what The Phantom does with his day. The point of the old racist Phantom was to keep the tribes from fighting; his mere presence kept the peace. What does this one do? Just wait for white assholes to show up?
Kit soon learns from an ancient text that the purloined skull is one of the three “Skulls of Tuganda,” which, when placed together, “harness a force a thousand times greater than any known to man.” The Tuganda tribe used to own all of them, but they were attacked by pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood, and the skulls were separated and lost—four centuries ago.
- If the skulls were so all-powerful, how did the Tuganda tribe lose?
- Is the force a thousand times greater than any known to man circa 1938 ... or 1538? I was rooting for the latter. The power maybe of a grenade at best. Instead of apocalypse, it went pop and fizz.
The man after the skulls is Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a New York businessman/mogul with ties to the modern Sengh. Williams plays him as a kind of broad, comic Howard Hughes. It’s mostly welcome; other times a bit much.
Did Boam include too many characters from the strip? They all have to be introduced. Not just the girl, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), recently returned to New York from the Yukon, but her would-be suitor, the useless Jimmy Wells (Jon Tenney), Lee Falk’s original consideration for the Phantom’s secret identity; and Diana’s uncle, Dave (Bill Smitrovich), an upright man who runs The New York Herald Tribune, and who tells Drax that they‘re running that exposé on him. Uncle Dave holds a soiree at his mansion, where we also meet Mayor and Police Commissioner, both of whom, of course, answer to Drax. As does the local mob bosses, the Zephro brothers. There’s a not bad scene where Drax gives a big speech in front of his lackeys about God being dead, America in financial ruin, darkness ruling the earth, and the opportunities in chaos. Ray Zephro (Joseph Ragno) objects. He talks about being an altar boy at St. Timothy’s and not putting up with this bullshit. There goes him. His brother, Charlie (David Proval), takes over. (Proval is mostly wasted here. You get no inkling of Richie Aprile.)
There’s also Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose all-female squadron works for Drax, and who will change sides before the end. Diana flies to Bengala to find out more about a spiderweb design (it’s the mark of the Sengh Brotherhood), but they’re forced down by Sala and her girls, and Diana is kidnapped. Enter the Phantom. Diana’s feistiness comes off a little bitchy. I.e., “Thanks, I can take it from here.” But they’re off and running.
So is the movie. At this point, it attempts, not poorly, the nonstop-action thing Spielberg perfected: From ship to plane to horse (a bit of a stretch—and ouch) to immediately being chased through the jungle by Quill and his men, guns blazing. Ultimately Phantom is helped by “the Rope People,” and he and Diana wind up back at the Skull Cave, where we’re introduced to yet another character, Capt. Horton (Robert Coleby), who tells Diana that the Sengh brotherhood is “an ancient order of evil. They started out as pirates. Nowadays, there’s no telling what they’ve become.”
Ah ha. NAZIS.
Probably, but we never get there. Apparently three movies were planned, but when this one opened to meh reviews (42% on RT) and meh box office (sixth place opening weekend), all that was scrapped.
Another smart thing the movie does? Gets Phantom out of the jungle. When I saw Kit Walker getting out of a cab in New York City, I got as excited as I did as a kid watching “Tarzan’s New York Adventure.” They don’t quite take advantage of it but it’s still fun: the run over the car rooftops in a traffic jam; stealing the cop’s horse; riding through Central Park and into the zoo, where, Tarzan-like, he’s apparently able to communicate with animals. Why not? Then we’re off for the movie’s final leg in the “Devil’s Vortex” (read: Triangle).
Lord of the rings
One of my favorite things about Billy Zane’s Phantom is his bemused matter-of-factness. “Your dog’s a wolf,” Diana tells him. “I know,” he responds. Here’s his first encounter with Drax:
Drax: All right, what's your name? Why do you want that skull so badly?
Kit: Kit Walker.
Drax: Huh. And who is Kit Walker?
Kit: I am.
On paper (or online) it doesn’t seem like much, but Zane nails it. He and Swanson also have good chemistry. She figures out who he is, of course—her college beau who left without saying goodbye. As Kit, he apologizes without apologizing. “My father died suddenly,” he says. “I had to take over the family business.”
The final battle in the pirate’s cove pits the three united skulls against the heretofore unmentioned fourth one: The Phantom’s ring. Guess who wins?
I’m not saying “The Phantom” is great, or even particularly good. But given all the problems with the source material, they didn’t do a bad job.