Skip to main content

Free cake and sandwiches are being served in the Hall of Nature.

The Phantom

(SPOILERS) It’s curious how perverse many of the comic adaptations were in the wake of Batman. Some of this was obviously down to rights and development hell (how to get Spidey webslinging, how to bring back Supes), but the likes of The Phantom, The Shadow and Dick Tracy – even, or especially, with Warren Beatty vouching for him – weren’t exactly the kind of iconic figures studio execs ought to have been imagining punters flocking to see. The Phantom wasn’t enormously expensive, but still not cheap (about $77m adjusted), and in fairness to Paramount, there was still speculation over what would work, outside of the DC icons; by the time it came out, there’d been successful recent outings for both goth Batman and camp Batman, so maybe a guy riding a horse in a purple leotard, with a pet wolf, would be just the ticket. There’s also the small detail that the movie that was made wasn’t the one that was envisaged.

Lee Falk’s comic strip first appeared in 1936 and has been running ever since, but that doesn’t mean it ever mustered mass audience appeal. Certainly, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who died in 2000) hadn’t heard of it. It was, however, a likely influence on Batman – appearing three years later – with its crimefighting non-superpowered playboy. Like Batman too, lineage plays an important part, although here, it’s the passing down of Phantom duds from generation to generation since the sixteenth century. The Phantom has his own (skull) cave, but it’s in jungle-infested Bengalla (rather prettily visualised as The Man with the Golden Gun’s Thailand island), rather than Gotham. The Phantom also carries a pair of hand guns, not very Bats (at least, not the Bats we mostly know).

As far as the movies are concerned, there was a Sergio Leone version brewing at one point; it appears he was interested in making it during the 1970s (and that he turned down Flash Gordon, due to dislike of the script) before Once Upon a Time in America took precedence.

Then came Joe Dante, increasingly looked at askance by studios, owing to his movies either not fitting the pigeonhole of their tastes or not doing the business they wanted or both. After The Mummy fell apart – why, oh why, oh why did we have to get the Stephen Sommers when we could have had Dante – Joe signed on as The Phantom’s director in mid-1994, prepping for an Australian shoot. Unsurprisingly, his collaboration with Jeffrey Boam (Innerspace, later Indy and Lethal Weapon sequels) was conceived as “a kind of spoof”. In Joe Dante by Nik Baskar and Gabe Klinger, it was cited as postponed for cast and or weather reasons. Talking to Den of Geek, Dante suggested “the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax”.

Dante suggested the remounted picture failed because “nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously – played straight”. However, it appears new director Simon Wincer had Boam change the script to a tone and style closer to the Falk original. Boam mentioned no spoofery or wrangling in an interview, simply that the source material worked (“I figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). Boam was having his own run-ins with things that were broke at that time, of course,

His involvement in Indy IV purportedly involved the Roswell UFO crash or the Soviets establishing a missile base on the Moon or both. It sounds as if this followed Jeb Stuart’s draft (that’s the one named Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars), and that it would have all been filmed a decade earlier than it was – despite being as terrible an idea then as it was later, no matter how many writers tried to ameliorate the mess – if not for Independence Day (interesting too that Boam was confirming right at the start that it would be pretty much based in the US for filming, aside from maybe Honduras).

The Phantom links to Indiana Jones are worth noting, though. It was set in the same period as classic Indy. The plot of both this and the fourth Indy movie revolve around skulls of great power. There’s a phantom in the title (okay, that one’s Star Wars). Boam wrote The Last Crusade. Wincer, the eventual Phantom director, jobbed for Young Indiana Jones. As Simon Wincer tells it, The Phantom’s renewed movie life occurred thanks to Val Kilmer and the delays – read: massive reshoots – on The Saint. Paramount needed to fill a summer slot (The Saint eventually surfaced in spring 1997). The Phantom is generally very sub-Indy, what with its jungles, fedoras (James Remar’s Quill is a bad Indy, basically) and indigenous tribes.

Wincer’s the very definition of the journeyman; a reliable TV director (Prisoner: Cell Block H), albeit he made oddball Robert Powell supernatural thriller Harlequin early on, along with several respected Australian period pictures (Phar Lap, The Lighthorsemen) and several less-respected US ones (D.A.R.Y.L., Quigley Down Under, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man) before Free Willy made him freshly bankable in the early ’90s. Mostly, he was cheap, reliable, and wouldn’t say no when a studio wanted something on time, on budget and in a hurry; when The Phantom flopped, studios stopped calling. Crocodile Dundee III was his next movie.

And unfortunately, whatever Dante says, it’s the director, not the tone of the screenplay that’s the biggest problem. There’s no flair or panache or pace to Wincer’s work. If you’re talking television, and this were an episode of Zorro, that would be fair enough. Dante’s right about one thing; if you’re going to have a guy in purple on a horse in New York, with a wolf, he needs either to be shot by Zack Snyder or not taken entirely seriously.

That’s a shame, as a fair bit else here is working. Billy Zane’s pretty good; he absolutely looks the part, he’s bulked up, he’s smart enough to do the Adam West deadpan. He isn’t however, really a leading man, no matter how much he’s a cool guy. Wincer seems to suggest he was part of Dante’s plan for the picture (“Originally, when they were gonna make it some years earlier in Australia he had already been cast and Paramount liked him. So he was pretty much attached when they decided to revisit”). Others rumoured were Bruce Campbell – probably Boam’s influence, owing to The Adventures of Brisco County Jr – and a different Kevin Smith (the Oz factor?)

By the same token, Zane’s not out there enough to make the picture more than it is; he’s simply a solid fit. Quite why they got Patrick McGoohan as his dad, I don’t know, as he’s entirely underused (he’s in about two scenes) and too old to have been a recently active Phantom; he may even have been there just to ensure a bookend narration. He was apparently infuriated by Zane (“Occasionally he would pump up before a take and it used to drive Patrick McGoohan crazy”).

The rest of the cast and crew do their jobs. Treat Williams is having a ball as villain Xander Drax, relishing every OTT line. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows she has Hollywood chops as villain-come-sympathetic Sala (she’d largely fail to fulfil that potential, perhaps because she’s better being a bitch). Kristy Swanson was at the back end of failing to make it as a lead post-Buffy bombing. Remar’s hissable. Zane Back to the Future co-star Casey Siemaszko appears, as does Samantha Eggar. David Newman delivers a serviceable score. David Burr makes Thailand look pretty.

But it looks like what it is too; a strictly functional, mechanical attempt to adapt a superhero movie, without any passion, zest or enthusiasm. None of the tropes carry any weight, be it in terms of hereditary peerage, the skull symbolism, the fake-out of immortality, the ruthless Sengh Brotherhood or even the ghostliness of dad. I’ll readily admit I was unclear if McGoohan was supposed to be an actual ghost or Billy’s imagining. And because Wincer’s so routine in approach, it’s easy for things to slip by. Like wondering why Diana (Swanson) is telling Kit Walker (Zane) it’s six years since they last saw each other when they shared the previous scene. Duh, because he was the Phantom in that scene, stupid! The Clark Kent convention of failing to recognise threw me for a moment.

Inevitably, The Phantom has earned cult status in some circles. Which is fine. It’s not unlikeable. But it’s anaemic where it counts. I’ll admit I’d much rather have seen Dante’s Batman than his The Phantom, but if it had been half as good as Innerspace, it would have been about three times as good as The Phantom we got.

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II (1989) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post- Aliens , that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period ( Cocoon , Predator ). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II , though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.