PSA: The Phantom (1996), or Is It Stuffy In Here, Or Is It Just This Movie?

21 08 2009

Welcome to the last installment of Failed Franchises Week! Here’s a tip for any budding directors or screenwriters; if you’re going to write a superhero movie, do not (DO NOT!) set it in the 1930s. It’s a kiss of death that gets a movie almost every time. You really sap out all the fun and  sense of daring when you set it in one of the blandest, most aesthetically boring times in the world. It was a time when people were more concerned with food and shelter due to a nearly worldwide depression, so, believe it or not, the decade was not big on eye candy. It’s just not a fun-filled era, what with Nazism on the rise and most of the Western world being bankrupt.  Plus, who wants to see a superhero take off his mask, slick back his hair, put on some pants that reach to his nipples, and put on a Glen Miller record on the gramophone? Unless you’re making Indiana Jones and you can afford to go to different locales all the time to stave off the boredom of the day with exotic locations, go to the 20s or the 50s. In the 90s, people all over the place thought they could use the decade as their playground for superhero movies. The Shadow, The Rocketeer, and today’s feature, The Phantom, all tried valiantly in their quest to make this era entertaining, but they all failed. Although in my personal opinion, I think The Phantom failed a little more than all the others.

Based on the famous comic strip, The Phantom begins in the 1800s on the tiny island of Bengalla, where the young survivor of a pirate attack vows to put a stop to evil wherever he finds it. When he grows to be a man, he develops the identity of The Phantom, a masked avenger who thwarts evil wherever he finds it. He holds the title for a time, but finds that he must keep the legacy alive so that people will think of The Phantom as an immortal spirit of vengeance who will never rest, so he begins a tradition of passing the identity to his son. His son becomes The Phantom, and so does his son, and so on until we find ourselves in the 1930s, where a young and dashing Kit Walker, AKA THE PHANTOM!, is on a perilous mission to stop the world’s craziest rich guy of the moment, Xander Drax, from obtaining the Skulls of Touganda. Sounds pulpy? Well, it is, because, and let me phrase this the right way, anyone who collects the four Skulls of Touganda will have the power to control the world! Yes, Xander Drax is evil, but that sounds pretty cool, huh? Anyway, it’s up to the current The Phantom to stop him. But things aren’t always that easy, and when Kit meets up with his old flame, finds the man who killed his father, and meets an ultra-sexy pirate chick named Sala who wants his lovin’ and his demise at the same time, you know you’re in for a thrill-a-minute thrill ride all the way to the Thrill-ageddon!

Or maybe not. Sad to say, but I found The Phantom to be incredibly mediocre. It’s almost amazing how mediocre it is, but that’s pushing the boundaries of the word ‘mediocre’, isn’t it? For an origin story, it’s not that they didn’t tell it right, or even well, but they told it in a very linear, banal way that left no room for the imagination to wander. I felt like there was no imagination in the project, like they just read the first few serials from the 30s, wrote down the parts they liked, and copied it to the T. No innovation, no frolicking or fun to change up the pace. Just mindless 30s action.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pretty movie that is technically impressive for 1996. The Phantom costume (SOMETIMES) is pretty good, and when it works, it really works. Inside buildings and with other people next to him, the suit seems somewhat believable and not ridiculous. Now, whenever he’s by himself or in the jungle, especially in the jungle, its shamefulness makes me question why I’m watching the movie in the first place. It’s like wearing a Halloween costume on November 1st; it just doesn’t seem right. The Skulls of Touganda also make for some cool 90s effects, and if you have an eye for it, you’ll probably surmise that most of the budget was spent on effects compared to everything else.

Which brings me to the actors. Billy Zane, what happened to you? Wherever you are, we miss you here at Cinematronica! I enjoy Billy Zane’s somewhat eccentric performance as The Phantom. He’s your typical pulp hero, but he’s got that extra, how should I put it, Zane-iness! Keep an eye out for how Zane acts with his face; he’s got one of the most expressive faces in the industry, and just a simple smirk can make a whole scene turn in its head. Treat Williams took a break between direct-to-VHS releases in ’96 to be this movie’s main villain, Xander Drax, and I kind of wish he would have just stayed out of this one. He’s so smarmy and droll that it threatened to turn his character into something even more unbelievable than a guy named Xander Drax. And when you can’t reign in Treat “Stoneface” Williams, you don’t have a very good handle on the situation, do you? Catherine Zeta-Jones is a very unlikable femme-fatale. Sala is the kind of character that you normally want the hero to end up with; she’s independent, sassy, sexy, and easily a match for the hero’s charms. Of course, classic Hollywood rules dictate that the hero can’t have her because he needs to hook up with the virginal blonde, and that always pissed me off because the hero and the virginal blonde usually have NOTHING IN COMMON. But here, The Phantom should get as far away from this chick as possible. She’s just plain annoying, and fuck-all if the camera isn’t fascinated with her here. It’s a big turn-off for me, and a disgrace to femme fatales everywhere.

The makers of The Phantom chose the wrong time frame, the wrong storytelling method, and a few wrong actors to make a movie that really shouldn’t be as boring as it is. It had potential, and that makes it even more upsetting that nothing came of it. Obviously, none of the planned sequels to this will be coming out anytime soon, although hope might come in the form of a reboot sometime in 2011. So hopefully Billy Zane keeps his agent from ’96 on speed-dial so he can get in on that, because Hollywood NEEDS some Billy Zane right now. All in all, though, good and bad all taken into account, I give The Phantom 5 1/2 SKULLS OF TOUGANDA!!!! out of 10. SLAM EVIL!!!

Stay tuned for another review tomorrow! I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but I know you’ll enjoy it! Hope you enjoyed Failed Franchises Week! If you want me to do some more themed weeks like this, let me know in the comments section! I thoroughly enjoyed it!!!

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