The Phantom (1996) / Action-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and some mild language
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Patrick McGoohan
Director: Simon Wincer
Screenplay: Jeffrey Boam
Review published December 22, 2003
Although Lee Falk's original "The Phantom" comic strip originated over 50 years before this film, it still seems pretty safe to say that it was turned into modern movie to try to capitalize on the success of the Batman and Indiana Jones pictures. The Batman ties in only superficially, with a masked superhero of comic book origins, but as for Indiana Jones...well, let's just say that The Phantom plays like a re-enactment of some of the more memorable scenes from all three of Spielberg's action-adventure creations. The borderline plagiarism isn't hard to spot, especially when you consider that Jeffrey Boam was called upon to create the screenplay, who was also the screenwriter for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The real problem here is that director Simon Wincer (Free Willy, Quigley Down Under) is not able to deviate from the campy nature of the comic book tale, never taking anything seriously, leaving us to marvel at some of the stunt work and special effects, while the main tale leaves us feeling distant despite the pyrotechnics.
Billy Zane (Tombstone, Memphis Belle) is the titular superhero, residing in the Deep Woods of Bengalla, where for over 4 centuries, The Phantom has been seen but rarely for long, causing the locals to think him a ghost walking among them. In reality, The Phantom is Kit Walker, the 21st Phantom, a succession of men who have dedicated their lives to fight piracy, cruelty and injustice in all its forms. They wear a mask and purple suit, and primarily have fought a dastardly brotherhood known as the Sengh. While this is going on, a megalomaniacal New York businessman named Xander Drax (Williams, 1941) is on a quest for "world domination" by seeking the fabled Skulls of Touganda, three long-separated artifacts that when put together wield great powers. Diana Palmer (Swanson, The Chase) is a local woman who's father runs a large newspaper is in on the scoop, and bumps into an old fling in Walker, and together they form an uneasy alliance to stop Drax before he gains all three Skulls.
It is rumored that Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) was supposed to have played the lead here, which should tell you enough about the intent from the outset to make the movie as campy as possible. Billy Zane would end up taking the role, giving good looks and a dark charisma that works well when he is Kit Walker. However, there's just something very silly about the Phantom when he is in his crusader garb that seems beyond campy. It's like watching a swashbuckling Fruit-of-the-Loom guy, although everyone around him takes him deadly serious, and what could have been a fun romp descends into the absurd. Treat Williams plays the diabolical Xander Drax, but like the Phantom, he acts equally silly, trying to play over-the-top but delivering goofy lines like an overzealous geek.
The Phantom is a superhero adventure flick that requires the undiscriminating eyes of a child to properly appreciate, as it is just too cartoonish to stimulate most looking for intelligent fare. It has an earnest quality that makes it nearly impossible to hate, yet the old-fashioned sense of adventure just doesn't play well to more savvy audiences. A nice score and good cinematography make it a pleasant ride, although the lack of clear destination ultimately leaves you with asking every ten minutes, "Are we there yet??"
©2003 Vince Leo