The Shadow

1994

Universal Pictures

Directed by Russell Mulcahy

Produced by Michael Bregman

Written by David Koepp

Created in 1930 to be the mysterious narrator of a radio anthology program, it wasn’t long before listeners demanded stories about this mysterious narrator. And so 1931 saw the debut of “The Shadow Magazine” a pulp series primarily written by the prolific Walter Gibson who also was a professional magician. It was Walter Gibson who considerably fleshed out the background of The Shadow, writing 282 out of 325 Shadow novels. The Shadow remains one of the best pulp heroes created and even today his popularity is extraordinary. His tagline: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” is known by people who have never read a Shadow novel or have little or no knowledge of the character whatsoever. His radio show is notable for its longevity as well as Orson Wells starring as The Shadow/Lamont Cranston in the early episodes. He’s also been featured in comic books, two television series and seven movies, including the 1994 big budget THE SHADOW starring Alec Baldwin as the slouch hatted crime-fighter.

Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is living in Asia when we first meet him. Operating as the ruthless opium warlord Ying Ko he is a cold blooded killer who has totally given over his soul to evil and corruption. He’s kidnapped by The Tulku, a holy man who tells Cranston that he could be a tremendous force for good if he could learn to harness the shadow of his own evil. Cranston is humbled by The Tulku who has some pretty formidable powers including telekinetic mastery over The Phurba, a living knife. Cranston becomes the Tulku’s disciple and is taught secrets of the mind, including the ability to cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him. Cranston then returns to New York City to take up the life he had before, that of a rich, spoiled playboy. But secretly he wages war against crime as The Shadow, using a network of agents to assist him. He’s unknowingly helped out by his uncle, Police Commissioner Wainwright Barth (Jonathan Winters) who tends to talk a little too freely around his nephew about police business as Barth has no idea Cranston is The Shadow.

It’s a secret that Cranston can’t keep from Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who has psychic powers of her own as well as a serious problem. Her scientist father Dr. Reinhardt Lane (Sir Ian McKellan) has been kidnapped by Shiwan Khan (John Lone) the last descendant of Genghis Khan who is determined to do what his ancestor couldn’t: rule the world. And he’s going to start by blowing up New York with an atomic bomb created by Dr. Lane and his slightly daffy assistant (Tim Curry) It’s up to The Shadow to stop Shiwan Khan but it’s not going to be easy. Not only does Shiwan Khan have an army of Mongol warriors who have no problem with killing whoever stands in their master’s way but Khan has mental powers that easily equal and may even surpass that of The Shadow himself.

Somewhere inside THE SHADOW there’s a really good movie trying it’s best to be seen. There’s a whole lot about this movie to like. The production values are wonderful and there’s rarely been a movie based on a pulp character that has looked this good. The 1930’s New York City of THE SHADOW is a pulp version of New York City and looks it. Alec Baldwin is obviously having a lot of fun playing the character and he does it very well. I really love how he looks as The Shadow. He looks exactly like a Michael Kaluta illustration come to life in every scene. Even though I think Jeff Goldblum or Adrian Brody are both more similar in appearance to the traditional description of Lamont Cranston, Alec Baldwin is perfectly acceptable. He’s a lot better than Penelope Ann Miller who is a great sucking black hole that saps every scene she’s in of its energy. Oh, she looks terrific in her costumes and she looks right at home in the 1930’s time period but she simply doesn’t generate very much excitement on screen.

John Lone tries his best but Shiwan Khan comes off more as a spoiled brat than a world conquering villain. Khan and Cranston have a couple of confrontations that are really strange in that they seem more like stand-up comics trying out their material on each other rather than the deadliest of enemies. And you don’t put the wildly talented Tim Curry in a movie without giving him more to do than simply roll his eyes and flash his trademark goofy grin. Peter Boyle also appears to be having a good time playing cab driver/chauffeur Moe Shrevnitz. He comes off better than Jonathan Winters since his Police Commissioner Barth appears to spend all his time eating steak in the Cobalt Club instead of doing his job. No wonder Mongol warriors in full armor and carrying swords can run around Manhattan kidnapping scientists and hacking innocent bystanders into baloney slices. Ian McKellan displays none of the bombastic energy he displayed in the “X-Men” or “Lord Of The Rings” trilogies. But then he isn’t asked to do much as he spends most of the movie being mind-controlled by Khan.

But for me the main problem is that the movie tries to merge the two incarnations of The Shadow into one. He’s both the radio version who has psychic powers and could cloud men’s mind so that they cannot see him and he’s also the pulp version who has no issues with whipping out a pair of .45 automatics and dealing out hot lead justice. I can see Baldwin’s Shadow using his mind-clouding powers when he’s up against half a dozen Mongol warriors in Dr. Lane’s lab but does he really need to use it against a single man with a machine gun? I could almost sympathize with Tim Curry when he screams; “why don’t you come out and fight like a man?”

So should you see THE SHADOW? I think so because at the core of it, The Shadow as a character is fascinating because here’s a hero who operates and acts more like a villain than even the actual villains he fights. The idea of a man harnessing his own evil nature and using it to fight evil is wonderful and I think it’s part of The Shadow’s secret of longevity. Even though it’s an ultimately disappointing effort, I like this movie for what it gets right and I forgive it for what it gets wrong as it’s obvious the director and the actors respect the characters and the material. I would have preferred a darker approach with a bad guy who does more than worry about where to buy a nice suit like Lamont Cranston’s but this movie’s a satisfactory way to introduce those unfamiliar with the character to the world of The Shadow. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth one viewing at least.

PG-13

108 minutes

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6 comments

  1. I enjoyed this movie. Baldwin nailed the character, better than I feel Goldblum would have. Goldblum I feel would have tried to inject his dry wit into the character somehow which wouldn’t have worked. I couldn’t agree more with you about Miller’s performance, just kind of drained my interest in the scene. And I see what you mean about Lone as Khan. He seems to play two characters so it was hard to really fear him or worry for the Shadow when ever the two met. Great review!

  2. I really want to like this movie. Every couple of years I give it another chance, but it never comes off as very good unfortunately. The invisible building is awesome though and I agree the whole thing looks great.

    1. It’s that type of movie where I really want to embrace it and love it whole-heartedly but just can’t bring myself to do so because those elements that spoil the good parts. And yeah, I love that scene where Lamont Cranston figures out that Khan has made an entire building invisible.

  3. One of the big problems I had with this movie was that the Shadow was so damned DUMB. At least twice, iirc, he lets the bad guys trap him and barely gets out with Margo’s help. I could accept him getting trapped once, but twice makes him look like a slow learner. That’s not the Shadow I know.

  4. Great review. I have been a lifetime fan of the Shadow. I was lucky enough to have heard the radio show and I read all the pulps. It was interesting to me that there were 2 versions of the Shadow in print form: 1 being The Shadow was Lamont Cranston and relied on assistance from others. Second being that Lamont Cranston was but 1 of The Shadow’s identities which he used along with others.

    I went to the theatre to see this when it came out and was hugely disappointed. Not because of Baldwin, but because of the others in the cast and the story itself. I keep hoping that with the popularity of superheroes brought to the big screen that someone would “reboot” the Shadow.

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