For some reason I just wanted to revisit this forgotten 90’s comic book movie. I can’t really tell you why but it was something that I had to do, a mission from God so to speak. And it turns out ol’ God was right ‘cause I had a real good time with this one. Now I know there are a lot of groans being let out right now but stick with me on this. Let me make a (mostly positive) case for The Phantom.
Plot: Xander Drax (Treat Williams (The Substitute 3, Deep Rising)) is an evil dude who’s looking for three magic skulls that when combined turn into a super duper thingy majig of destruction. The Phantom (Billy Zane (Match from Back to the Future I & II (and no, I’m not making that shit up))) is the protector of the skulls and has to fight not only Drax but his henchmen and eventually his age old nemeses, the Singh Brotherhood. Of course he also falls in love along the way with the damsel in distress, Diana (Kristy Swanson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)).
It’s a simple plot and that’s one of the many things I like about this picture. You never get lost or confused as to what’s happening. Bad guy’s trying to get the skulls, good guy tries to stop him. Beautiful.
The acting is something a lot of you have a beef with and I get it. Billy Zane is a hammy actor to begin with and he seems to crank it up more than usual here because he’s doing almost like a 30’s snappy kinda accent and rhythm. With that said I don’t think he’s annoying. He brings more lame than cool to the role for sure, but I’m totally fine with spending 100 minutes with him.
Treat Williams is great as the smug and ruthless Drax. He’s the kind of guy that smiles while he kills you. It’s a fun character and Williams was a good choice. He’s congenial but you wouldn’t dare cross that motherfucker ‘cause he’d throw a goddamn African spear in your back (and then be concerned that he nicked the wood molding).
Kristy Swanson is fine. Not much to say here. She’s solid.
James Remar (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Ratatouille) as the number two is a different story. If you don’t know the name you would probably recognize his face because he’s been in a lot of shit. It’s awesome that he had a big part in this and that he plays a scummy bad guy but holy shit did he phone it in. All of his lines fall right to the floor and his movements look a little stiff. With his whole performance it feels like he’s saying, “fuck it, I’m not into this movie”. James, I dig your work man but what the hell was this?
I also have to mention Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Mortal Kombat) because he shows up as a nice surprise. He’s always good and this is no exception.
There are a couple of superfluous characters too like Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones (Entrapment)) and Charlie (David Proval (Mean Streets, Romeo is Bleeding)). Their only purposes are to have something pretty to look at and to eventually die, respectively.
Let’s move on to the action. There’s a bunch of it. The Phantom beats up bad guys, there’s a crumbling old bridge over a gigantic chasm scene, there’s a plane/horse chase scene and etc. Lots of archetypical boy’s adventure/Indiana Jones type shit. It’s all shot and edited very clearly too. The fights aren’t choreographed very well though and that’s actually a fairly significant strike against the movie. I mean the ideas that the filmmakers came up with for the action sequences are excellent but the best I can say is that they were competently pulled off. Most of it isn’t very memorable and that’s a damn shame. I think that if the action was worked on more and tweaked here and there then people wouldn’t have dumped on this film so much. It certainly wouldn’t have been a cure-all but it could’ve helped greatly.
Simon Wincer was in the director’s chair and he’s not a well known guy. He did mostly TV but he also helmed a couple of features (I say “did” because he appears to work very little these days). Free Willy is probably the biggest thing he did but I had no idea he directed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. If you weren’t aware that they made an action movie starring these two fictional characters based on motorcycles and cigarettes then I don’t know where you’ve been. Check it out, it’s good. What’s really weird is that Wincer did Harley and Marley right before Willy. I guess the studio liked what they saw and knew that they had found the right man to direct their kid-falls-in-love-with-a-killer-whale picture.
What the hell was I talking about? Oh right, the direction. It’s pretty plain generally speaking but there are a few spots where there’s some extra flair. Like there’s a part where the Phantom swings on a vine in slow motion when he rescues a kid and there are some close-ups of the Phantom’s face and belt to tease us before we get the grand entrance of him riding a white horse through the jungle. But I’ll tell ya, even though there’s no real panache here with how it was shot it’s all very crisp, clear and efficient.
To distract from the relatively bland directing the production and costume design are fucking cool. The sets and locations have that classic 30’s Art Deco style that’s exaggerated just enough to make you notice. It’s a nice blend of comic book cartoony-ness and realism. The same goes for the costumes.
Some interesting (and sometimes strange) filmmaking decisions help to distract as well. Like the thing starts with “For those who came in late” before diving into the backstory as if the movie’s a little pissed that we don’t know all about the Phantom already. There’s also the part where a skeleton chokes a henchman to death and the other bad guys don’t seem terribly shocked about it. Look, the Phantom performs some unbelievable feats and there’s a little magic in here with the skulls ‘n shit but a dusty old skeleton coming alive and choking a sonuvabitch? Ok, it’s cool as shit but that’s kinda out there man. Not only does anything like that ever happen again, it’s never mentioned again either. There are a few other peculiar bits but I’ll let you discover those for yourself.
The fella who wrote (and produced) this is Jeffrey Boam and he has some seriously impressive credits. He wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the best in the series in my opinion), The Lost Boys and Lethal Weapon 2 (which is arguably just as good as part 1) and 3 (which is arguably better than part 4). Jesus, he was a genius (he’s dead now). I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of him. This screenwriter makes a lot of sense when you consider the selection of action scenes, the good pacing and the simple yet effective plot. The characters are a little underdeveloped however and the tone is lighter than on his other action escapades. But I think this guy is perhaps the main reason why I dig this film. He’s a pro whose work I love, so this thing started with at least a rock solid foundation.
Alright, there are two last things before I move into my final argument of why you should see this (or give it another shot). First I want to talk about the Phantom himself as a character. And the thing I want to say is: I don’t really get it. He’s a guy who fights crime all around the world and passes down the Phantom torch to his son, or maybe some other person that he just likes a lot? What happens if he dies before he can do that? Does someone take it upon himself to become the next Phantom? Can there, or was there, ever a female Phantom?
Hold on, that’s not really the point I wanted to raise. It’s the outfit, it baffles me. If he lives in the jungle most of the time why wouldn’t he wear something more…uhh…jungle-y. You know, something more natural looking instead of spandex. By that measure the guns don’t make sense either. I guess the Phantom is just keeping up with the times but it struck me as kind of an odd choice of weapon. He’s not a stealthy guy though, which is why I can look past his decision to blast the guns, sport purple and ride a white horse in a green/brown jungle. Overall, the character’s a bit of a mess if you think about it but I have to admit that when you put it all together the image is striking and there’s something sorta neat about it…sorta.
Secondly, this picture is typical of what was going on in the 90’s with comic book flicks. They were brighter, lighter and more cartoony than the dark and serious tone that’s still all the rage today. They also chose offbeat characters to make movies out of back then. There was The Shadow, The Crow, Barb Wire and Tank Girl to name a few. Pretty much only comic book geeks had heard of these folks so it was weird to devote a whole production to them. It’s a shame you don’t see that very much anymore. For the most part the studios these days don’t want to take a gamble on something like The Rocketeer because it doesn’t have the huge name recognition of Spiderman or Superman. And this last point isn’t really a 90’s thing but The Phantom isn’t an origin story either. That doesn’t happen very often, where the full blown character already exists. I actually like that and think it works better that way than to have a beginning story all the time with the first installment in a series. A several minute backstory at the start or right before the third act is good enough. Then we get to spend more time with the actual character instead of Joe Schmo learning to become that character.
Phew, let’s wrap this shit up. This movie is a damn fun time. It may be far from the best comic book or action film but it has such a fantastic attitude and adventure spirit that you can’t help but like it at least a tiny tad. It captures the essence of a 30’s/40’s adventure serial pretty perfectly. From the varied settings to the costumes to the story to the set design to the selection of action sequences, it all feels right. They jammed a lot into that hour forty and before I knew it the credits were rolling. This is such an easy relaxing yet engaging watch. You kind of fall into it and let the thing take you on an adventure that’s not too heavy or demanding.
It’s no forgotten masterpiece or anything but I’d say it’s a little gem; a small entertaining piece of cinema that’s worth checking out if you’re into action, adventure or comic book movies.
Addendum: Did anyone else notice that the skull battle between the Phantom and Drax looked a lot like the fight between Egg Shen and Lo Pan at the end of Big Trouble in Little China. They’re both magic light battles with purple representing the good guy and green representing the bad guy. There aren’t any ancient Chinese swordsmen in The Phantom one so that makes me think this must’ve just been a weird coincidence.