The Phantom

There was a time when heroes were simply heroic and villains were simply villainous. A time when every plot was nefarious and every bad guy wanted to rule the world. A time when everything was so wonderfully black and white. If you long for this time again, and wonder why today’s heroes all seem to lurk in shades of gray, then The Phantom is right up your alley.

Drawing from characters created by Lee Falk in the 1930’s, The Phantom does an admirable job of staying true to the four-color atmosphere of the legendary comic strip. The Phantom doesn’t shoot people, he shoots weapons out of their hands. Want to escape him? Throw someone’s purse on the ground as he’ll no-doubt stop to pick it up. The good guys are so good and the bad guys are so bad that you expect everyone has their affiliation tattooed somewhere on their forehead.

Billy Zane is the title character, the latest in a string of 20 fathers and sons who have grown up in the Bengalla Jungle and dedicated themselves “to fight piracy, cruelty and injustice in all its forms” (must be a busy jungle). Zane tackles the role admirably, using his deep voice to throw wicked one-liners and his bulging biceps to throw wicked punches. The action sequences are a bit subdued compared to the other summer action releases, but the Phantom nevertheless finds numerous opportunities to hang from the pontoons of seaplanes and slide down elevator shafts. No padded costumes are needed as Zane’s muscles are quite real.

Treat Williams is a treat as Xander Drax, the power-mad tycoon (is there any other kind?) who’s searching for the Skulls of Touganda – three artifacts that create a power 1,000 times stronger than anything known to man. Prone to megalomania, Drax is all evil and Williams plays it to the hilt with such lines as “History is being made today, and you’re all a part of it…not an equal part, of course, but still a part.” That’s the beauty of this genre – it’s impossible to overact.

Kristy Swanson checks in as the requisite love interest, the feisty daughter of a wealthy publisher. Catherine Zeta Jones is a treacherous henchman who switches sides for no discernible reason and James Remar is her male counterpart.

The Phantom is a beautiful film. The action swings from the jungle to 1938 New York and then out to a tropical island. The wilderness scenery is breathtaking and the period costume and set work in the urban scenes is flawless. In this sense it’s a lot like another comic-strip-turned-movie, 1994’s The Shadow. Thankfully, however, The Phantom is infinitely more bearable.

The trick to enjoying this is to take it for what it is – a comic strip set to film. It’s not realistic by any stretch and it’s not really meant to be. The plot is about as deep as a rain puddle and characterization isn’t much better. In a lot of ways it’s just like the 2-cent comic book it came from: something to be experienced, enjoyed, and then invariably discarded. As long as you keep this in mind, The Phantom is great way to kill an afternoon.

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