The Phantom (1996)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Phantom” is based on the superhero comic strip originated in the 1930s, which means this is probably one of the very first superheroes, if not the first (I regret not knowing the history of Batman or Superman). The Phantom—or the Ghost Who Walks—is not one of the well-known heroes, and the film adaptation shows how dated the hero is. The movie apparently knows this too, as it takes place in the same time period as when the comic strip was first released. The movie is true to the Phantom’s origins. When he’s not the mild-mannered Kit Walker (Billy Zane), he’s the Phantom. He doesn’t have the strength, speed, or flight of Superman or Batman’s cool gadgetry, and he’s not very stealth either. He’s a man who is quick-witted and fast on his feet, but not incredibly super. He’s called the Phantom, or the Ghost Who Walks, but he’s not a ghost. He’s human—he can’t live forever. Apparently, he’s the 21st in a long line of Phantoms who live a skull cave in the jungle. Phantoms have a vow to fight evil and thievery, and thus whenever someone comes sneaking around the jungle trying to obtain something hidden, the “Ghost Who Walks” is there to thwart them.

OK, why he’s called “Ghost Who Walks” is beyond me. Is “Ghost Who Works” really supposed to sound scary? Why not “Ghost Who Kills?” That’s as silly, but more threatening than…a ghost who walks. But more importantly, there’s the issue of the Phantom’s silly purple costume and eye mask. Yeah, it’s pretty silly-looking and you know purple never blends into anything, let alone the jungle. But let it slide—the movie is entertaining enough to forget that.

“The Phantom” features an evil industrialist named Xander Drax (Treat Williams), who plans to find a few of these mystical skulls that, when combined, can create unbelievable power and thus give him the ability to overpower mankind. Onto him is a Big Apple newspaper publisher (Bill Smitrovich) who investigates along with his daughter Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson). But Diana gets captured by Drax’s pirates, including Catherine Zeta-Jones as an exotic bad girl whom Diana constantly tries to get to join the good side because…she’s a woman, I guess. The Phantom rescues her, and he helps on the quest to stop Drax from locating the skulls. And by the way, here’s a “small-world” moment for you—Kit Walker, the Phantom’s human identity, actually had a relationship with his damsel-in-distress Diana in the past. Small world, huh?

“The Phantom” lets loose a lot of fun action sequences—chases, fights, and other stunts that are quite impressive. My favorite is a central sequence in which the Phantom and Diana get away from the villains’ ship, using one of their planes, and having to land on the Phantom’s fast horse before the conveniently-extremely-low-on-fuel plane crashes. (This horse and the Phantom’s wolf who runs at the same speed have to be the fastest animals in the world.) There’s also a showdown in a creepy cavern, a struggle with a truck on an unstable suspension bridge, and other neat action scenes that are quite fun. No wonder, considering the writer of this movie—Jeffery Boam—was the writer of the third Indiana Jones movie.

Billy Zane is a terrific casting choice for the Phantom. He’s sly, suave, bright, and just finds the right tone for the role. Kristy Swanson, as Diana, doesn’t just play the damsel-in-distress. She has enough spunk and nice moves to make the character as interesting as she can. Treat Williams is an absolute riot as the slick villain Drax—you can tell he’s having a ton of fun with this role. And also on hand is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has plenty of gusto as the woman working for the bad guys, but could maybe be useful for the good guys.

Even if “The Phantom” gets pretty silly (and you have to admit, that silly purple costume doesn’t make the Phantom look particularly threatening), it is still a modestly entertaining movie with game performances and some nifty action scenes as well.

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