The Phantom (1996)
The Phantom (1996)

Genre: Superhero Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: June 7th, 1996 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Simon Wincer Actors: Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Bill Smitrovich, Samantha Eggar, Patrick McGoohan

 


 

“F

or those who came in late … ” opens “The Phantom,” which is admittedly one of the oddest ways for a picture to begin, even though it has plenty of backstory to impart on audiences. Long ago, an evil pirate leader kills a young boy’s father. The boy survives, but he’s washed ashore on Bengalla island, where an ancient ceremony by a tribal shaman gives the youth a ring with great significance – and great power. It’s during this rite of passage that the kid realizes his destiny is to avenge his father – and to fight evil.

In 1938, in the Bengalla jungle, a foursome of modern-day pirates – treasure hunters – journey into a cave, claimed to be guarded by a ghost. As they desecrate ancient ruins to steal jewelry and gold (in a sequence unmistakably ripping off the adventures of Indiana Jones), they’re picked off one by one via supernatural means (including a skeleton that comes alive to choke one of the pilferers). Quill (James Remar) is the leader of the thugs, a man who has had a run-in before with the ghostly Phantom (Billy Zane) – the little boy who has grown up and now protects the sacred lands.

Dressed all in purple (a peculiarly vivid costume that reminds of Warren Beatty’s colorful “Dick Tracy”), with a black mask across his eyes (doing little to conceal his identity), this superhero sports guns and colossal endurance, rides a white stallion, and is accompanied by a wolf sidekick named Devil. And he’s also immortal. Plus, he’s visited by the spirit of his elderly father (Patrick McGoohan) for advice on stopping a secretive brotherhood of raiders (an ancient order of evil) trying to gain control of a trio of all-powerful silver skulls.

Despite the Phantom’s predilection for somber expressions and glib one-liners (“There’s an old jungle saying … “), the violet, skintight bodysuit is just too much for the film’s fleeting seriousness. Quite regularly, the look of the picture is sillier than what can be counteracted by action-oriented gunplay and combat. It also doesn’t help that Zane’s dialogue deliveries all sound as if his tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek; entirely too much comic relief finds its way into this superficial superhero.

There are some remarkable similarities to “The Shadow” from a couple of years prior, such as a high-society crowd subplot in New York, where a love interest (Kristy Swanson) shows disinterest in affluence; corrupt politicians and moguls strive for more wealth and power; supernatural components aid the masked, crime-fighting protagonist in his quest to thwart villainy; and the Phantom even has a cabbie always at his disposal, wields dual handguns, and confronts the descendant of a mighty conqueror. Many of the sets are virtually identical as well. Some of the stunts, while impressive, are incredibly reminiscent of ideas seen in the Indiana Jones movies (there’s also a native child who hangs around and comes in handy), from booby traps to brief airplane flights to vehicle chases (the setting in the ’30s generates some unfortunate coincidences as well). Even Quill’s outfit is too familiar, what with his brown fedora and tattered shirt.

Additional details include Catherine Zeta-Jones in a henchwoman part, leading an all-girl gang of mercenary pilots; the Phantom’s stone throne housed in a cave shaped like a skull (“no smoking in the skull-cave”); and Treat Williams as the sarcastic, arrogant villain Drax, scheming to take over the world through chaos – and willing to execute minions to demonstrate his formidability. The plot is nonsensical to match the origin story, which is translated rather pitifully from Lee Falk’s comic strip. Understandably, no one seems to be taking any of it seriously, especially as the dialogue reflects dumbed-down conversations and repetition for the sake of viewers who may not be paying attention. “The Phantom” desperately needs a charismatic hero, a dependable antagonist, a stirring theme tune, and several heavy doses of sincerity to be effective – but its tone never changes from smart-alecky, which severely dulls the action and adventure (the Phantom never seems to have a plan when he storms an enemy stronghold) and contributes to unintentional laughs. “What is wrong with you? Why are you so mean?”

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10