Produced by Robert Evans and Alan Ladd, Jr.
Directed by Simon Wincer
Written by Jeffrey Boam
Based on “The Phantom” created by Lee Falk
I have absolutely no idea why some movies become major hits and others fail miserably. Especially movies such as THE PHANTOM which ranks right up there with “Superman: The Movie” Tim Burton’s first “Batman” “Batman Begins” “X-Men: First Class” “The Rocketeer” and Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” as one of the best superhero movies ever made. Hell, it’s a damn good movie, period. The cast is outstanding, the locations beautiful, the action non-stop, the music appropriately heroic and romantic. This was a movie that should have been a blockbuster hit in theatres. But it failed to find an audience. I was one of those who saw it during the original theatrical run. I went during a matinee and there was just myself and two guys in their seventies who remembered reading “The Phantom” in the newspapers as kids. We all had a great time watching the movie. Since then I’ve recommended THE PHANTOM to a lot of people who have seen it and loved it. They claim that they never saw advertisements for the movie but that may be just as well. The tagline for the movie was so colossally stupid I hope the egg roll that thought of it was demoted to Junior Washroom Attendant (What the hell was ‘Slam Evil!’ supposed to mean?)
It may be that people just looked at the ads and assumed that The Phantom was a rip-off of Batman set in the jungle. Actually, The Phantom debuted in 1936 and Batman didn’t appear until 1939. Indeed, The Phantom is credited as being the very first costumed superhero. But so many things that made The Phantom unique has been taken as adopted by creators of other superheroes that it’s not surprising that many modern day viewers dismissed the movie as being an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Batman and Spider-Man. Which is really a shame. THE PHANTOM is remarkably faithful to the source material and a movie done with a tremendous amount of respect and love for the character.
The origins of The Phantom is told to us during the credits: In 1516 a young boy named Kit Walker is serving as cabin boy aboard his father’s ship. During a routine voyage to Africa to trade goods the ruthless Singh Brotherhood, a feared band of pirates, attacks the ship. The boy Kit is the only survivor and escapes to be washed up on the shores of Bengalla. The Bandar tribe befriends him, teach him their language and heir ways. Kit finds the body of his father, partially eaten by scavengers. He takes his father’s skull and swears an oath upon it: Kit and all his descendants will combat piracy in all its forms. And so The Phantom is born. When one Phantom dies, his eldest son takes on the role of The Phantom. As a result, there is a myth that The Phantom cannot die and is immortal. He is known the world over as The Ghost Who Walks and it is this belief that is The Phantom’s strongest weapon in his battle against evil. Only the Bandar tribe, the wives and family of the various Phantoms know the true secret.
THE PHANTOM takes place in 1936 where the current Phantom/Kit Walker (Billy Zane) finds himself up against Xander Drax (Treat Williams) a millionaire industrialist/crimelord who is searching for the Three Skulls Of Togunda: mystical artifacts that when brought together will give him ultimate power. Drax has two formidable henchmen in the mercenary Quill (James Remar) who killed the 20th Phantom (Patrick McGoohan) and female martial arts expert/pilot Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But The Phantom has help from the equally formidable Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer, yay!) who has uncovered a connection between Drax and The Singh Brotherhood. Diana’s a plucky, adventurous girl with a mean right hook that still carries a big torch for a boy she loved in college. They had thought about getting married but his father died and he had to leave The United States to take over the family business. The boy’s name was Kit Walker.
Diana and The Phantom meet after Diana’s plane is forced down by Sala and her crew of female fighter plane pilots and The Phantom has to rescue her from a tramp steamer crewed by merciless killers. From then, it’s on to New York where Diana and Kit have a reunion that’s both painful and touching. But then Diana is once again kidnapped by Drax and his crew and taken to the horrifying island fortress of The Singh Brotherhood located in The Devil’s Vortex, from which no man ever returns. But it’s there that the third skull is located, held by the bloodthirsty Kabai Sengh (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa) the current leader of The Singh Brotherhood. And they have their own plans for the Three Skulls…a plan that will also end their 400-year-old war with The Phantom…
Anybody who knows me knows I eat up this stuff and totally choke on it. I’ve seen THE PHANTOM perhaps a dozen times and I’ll gladly watch it a dozen more. It is the best of pulp action adventure that is presented in such a fun way that I honestly don’t see how anybody couldn’t watch this movie without a goofy grin of delight on his or her face. Billy Zane is totally perfect in the role of The Phantom/Kit Walker in the same way Michael Keaton was perfect for Batman/Bruce Wayne and Christopher Reeve was perfect for Superman/ Clark Kent.
I really like how The Phantom is presented in this movie. First of all, Billy Zane insisted that the suit not be padded. So those muscles you see are actually his. And yeah, Billy Zane wears a purple bodysuit and makes it look damn cool. But the suit isn’t a bright purple. It’s a dark, muted purple that is even darker by what appears to be black tribal markings/tattoos on the suit that brings down the purple even more. It gives The Phantom’s costume the appearance of a tribal ceremonial garb he’s adopted for his purposes which works well with the jungle background of the character. And The Phantom is wonderfully low tech. He gets around on a magnificent Arabian stallion named Hero. His enforcer is a wolf named Devil. He carries no gadgets, just two black .45 automatics that he uses with such skill that he can knock a gun out of a man’s hand with a single shot. His radio is operated by his faithful servant/boyhood chum Guran (Radmar Agana Jao) who has to pedal the electric motor to give it power. Guran also won’t let you smoke in The Phantom’s base of operations, The Skull Cave.
It makes for a terrifically physical hero who relies more on his wits, brains and athletic abilities to get out of scrapes than we’re used to in these kind of movies. The Phantom can’t pull stuff out of his utility belt to get out of trouble which makes for a lot of really tense action scenes where you’re really wondering: “How’s he going to get outta this one?”
If you don’t know that I totally love Kristy Swanson, then be advised now that I do. I remember seeing the original “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” movie she starred in back in 1992 and I immediately became infatuated with her. And I love her in THE PHANTOM. She’s a vastly underrated actress who should have had a bigger career. She deserves it. She’s gorgeous, she’s intelligent and every time she’s on screen you believe what she’s doing. James Remar and Catherine Zeta-Jones have a great deal of fun with their badguy roles. And Patrick McGoohan is wonderful as the former Phantom who might be an actual ghost coming back to advise his son on how to handle the family business or he might be a psychological quirk that Kit needs to get through his job.
So should you see THE PHANTOM? Without a doubt, yes. In my opinion it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made and should be seen just for the performances and production values alone. It’s an awesome looking movie, period. The costumes the cars, the whole 1930’s period is recreated in fantastic style. And the damn movie is just so much fun. The Phantom is a hero is actually enjoys being a hero and it’s a change to see a hero who enjoys doing what he’s born to do to. He doesn’t angst about it or moan and cry or worry about paying rent or whatever. Simon Wincer directs this movie with a great sense of style and you get the feeling that everybody had a wonderful time making this movie.
If you’ve been reading my reviews and trust my opinion at all then go get yourself a DVD or Blu-Ray of THE PHANTOM, get the snacks and drinks of your choice and have yourself a great time watching a great movie. Enjoy.