The Phantom (1996)

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Our rating: three lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

"I am not a Phantom, I am a free man!"
After the recent spate of really bad superhero movies, wouldn't it be really kind of nice to find a really good one? Although a reasonably entertaining romp, The Phantom isn't quite what we were looking for.

Billy Zane is the painfully urbane Kit Walker, also known as The Ghost Who Walks. Zane plays the Phantom (that jungle-lurking hero of the comic strips) with the assist of a padded purple body suit, and a tiny little mask that offers about the same facial coverage as Lisa Loeb's glasses. And yet no one who meets both Kit and the Phantom figures out the connection. "Gee, this Phantom guy looks like Kit, has the same complexion, and has a similar voice and the same upper-class twit accent, but I can't be sure they're the same guy because I can't see the bridge of the Phantom's nose." We think the key to being a successful superhero with a secret identity is not to come up with a really good costume, but to surround yourself with stupid people.

The plot, for those who keep track of these kinds of things, has to do with a megalomaniac industrialist who wants to unite three mystical skulls that will unleash an amazing power. That power is later revealed to be equivalent to that of a good welding torch, but we digress. The industrialist, Xander Drax, is played by Treat Williams, who obviously didn't have anything better to do with his time than appear in this movie. He loves to dispose of people in ridiculously convoluted manners, like the librarian he kills with a booby-trapped microscope. How often do you have a chance to use something like that? Can it possibly be cost effective to fund the R&D to design such a device, when it is unlikely you will ever have a chance to use it in the dramatic fashion that it really requires to be satisfying? Does he have a whole warehouse full of killer gadgets that he's never gotten to use, because he hasn't yet been crossed by... say... a trapeze artist?

"Don't you just love my outfit?"
Enter the convenient female, Diana Palmer, as played by Kristy Swanson (the original but ultimately inferior Buffy the Vampire Slayer). We say convenient because she has all the right circumstantial connections to be instrumental to the plot. Her father is a high-profile newspaper editor determined to bring Drax down, she once was in love with Kit, and she has a taste for adventure in far-off places. So when someone is needed to investigate Xander's dealings in a remote tropical location, Diana is the obvious choice.

By far the most dignified presence in the movie is Patrick McGoohan, the British actor best known from Danger Man and The Prisoner. He plays the spirit of the previous Phantom, Kit's father. In a rare example of compassion on the part of the film makers, we are NOT subjected to the sight of McGoohan in purple tights. But we digress.

The Phantom plays a lot like an Indiana Jones movie, which isn't too surprising, considering the fact that Jeffrey Boam, the screenwriter, wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (One of the villains in The Phantom bears a rather suspicious resemblance to Indy.) The plot involves ancient artifacts, the stunts are largely of the Errol Flynn variety, and the acting is very much like what you'd expect to see in a 1930's pulp-fiction serial. The difference, however, lies in the hero. The Phantom lives up to his name, relying on the fear that his legend inspires in villains and more square-jawed super-heroing than Indy's sensible and tongue-in-cheek approach.

"I got it in a box of Cracker Jacks.
Why do you ask?"
It's not that The Phantom is without humor, however. Where the comic strip can be deadly serious, the film takes the opportunity to poke fun. "No smoking in the Skull Cave," quips Walker at one point. Likewise, a cab driver's response to a breakneck street chase and other adventurous shenanigans is: "I love New York." All the while, this movie stops just short of parodying itself, except perhaps in the case of Treat Williams, who can parody himself just standing alone on screen.

The Phantom does a good job of capturing some of the ideas and canon of the comic strip's legend. If it's a bit too goofy to be taken seriously, at least this film doesn't disgrace the original material, like Batman and Robin. For that, series creator Lee Falk can be eternally grateful. Now if only we could get someone to leave little skull-ring scars on the likes of Joel Schumacher.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 5/4/98

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