Rated PG, 100 min. Directed by Simon Wincer. Starring Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Treat Williams, James Remar, Jon Tenney, Samantha Eggar, Patrick Mcgoohan.
A throwback to the days when superheroes were basically cheerful, gun-toting guys in tights, this adaptation of Lee Falk's King Features comic strip eschews the warped psychological rigmarole of such recent genre outings as Batman, Dick Tracy, and even The Shadow in favor of an amiable, level-headed hero in purple spandex. That this is as far removed from our modern-day notions of what a superhero should be doesn't bode well for the film. Zane plays The Phantom -- and his dapper alter-ego Kit Walker -- as a jungle-bound gentleman of derring-do, out to “fight piracy, greed, and cruelty … in all its forms.” From his secret hideaway (the aptly named Skull Cave) deep within the remote jungle island of Bengalla, he wages a continuing war against the treacherous Brotherhood of the Sengh, a loosely-knit group of pirates who, 400 years ago, killed the original Phantom and thus caused each succeeding generation of Walkers to don the hooded mask and strap on the dual Colt .45s, avenging the original sin through good deeds and clever trick shooting. With his trusty wolf sidekick Devil and his Arabian stallion Hero, The Phantom is as retro as it gets, and Zane appears to be having a ball essaying “The Ghost Who Walks.” Like The Phantom's comic-strip adventures, the film's plot seems cobbled together from various sources. There are shades of Indiana Jones here (I kept waiting for the Nazis to show their ugly mugs, but it never happened) and other swashbuckling tactics, and Jeffrey Boam's script makes good use of a lovingly recreated New York City circa 1936. Williams is goofily over the top as corrupt industrialist Xander Drax, devouring lines and scenery in a veritable frenzy of hamminess, and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer Swanson is, likewise, a caricature of Thirties feminine chutzpah. The Nintendo generation may not “get” The Phantom any more than those original Thirties fans would have understood Bruce Wayne's tortured psyche, but that aside, Wincer's updating of an old warhorse is lovingly done. It's a Saturday afternoon matinee for the Nineties, 60 years old and totally new.
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