Phantom, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's probably unfair to characterize The Phantom as a Batman-wannabe, since Lee Falk's comic book creation predated the Caped Crusader. Nevertheless, as far as motion picture adaptations are concerned, Michael Keaton first stepped into his suit seven years before Paramount Pictures released this movie. And, since both superheroes lack recognizable super powers and wear costumes, the connection is obvious. It should be noted, however, that while Batman's form-fitting suit looks a lot more stylish than The Phantom's cheesy purple outfit, appearance isn't everything -- this film is more fun than Tim Burton's 1989 atmosphere-soaked, empty-headed yarn.

That's not to say that The Phantom, directed by Simon Wincer (Free Willy), doesn't have atmosphere. Actually, it's a nice-looking motion picture, with splashy colors highlighting nearly every scene. But, unlike Batman, it doesn't hang everything on mood, and the tone isn't relentlessly downbeat. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since The Phantom never takes anything seriously, the audience doesn't have to, either. This is the sort of tongue-in-cheek campiness that knows exactly what it is, and the irreverent tone saves this film from being another failed Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In fact, the action sequences are among the least enjoyable parts of The Phantom, since they're uniformly routine. If you want action, see The Rock. This film is for those who enjoy come-to-life comic books with self-consciously preposterous dialogue, over-the-top acting, silly plot contrivances, and a superhero who strikes all the right poses. It's not great cinema, but that doesn't stop it from being enjoyable in a B-movie way (and, unlike most films out there now, it's entirely suitable for children).

For four-hundred years, the Phantom has haunted the Bengalla woods, known to the native inhabitants as "The Ghost Who Walks." Kit Walker (Billy Zane) is the twenty-first man to take up the mantle, inheriting it from his late father (Patrick McGoohan), who makes occasional ghostly appearances to advise him. It's the lot of the Walker family to "fight piracy, cruelty, and injustice in all its forms", and has been since the boy who became the first Phantom witnessed his father's murder. Because all the Phantoms wear the same costume, the outside world believes that there's only one of them -- an immortal vigilante of sorts -- and Kit is in no hurry to dispel the illusion.

The age-old enemy of the Phantom is the evil Sengh brotherhood, who are searching for the fabled Skulls of Touganda, a trio of artifacts that, when brought together, give the possessor great powers. One New York businessman, Xander Drax (Treat Williams), wants those skulls for himself, so he sends his henchman, Quill (James Remar), into the jungles of Bengalla to retrieve one. Quill and the Phantom have a history -- he's the one who stabbed Kit's father in the back. Meanwhile, back in the Big Apple, a newspaper publisher and his daughter (Kristy Swanson) who suspect that Drax is up to no good run afoul of the megalomaniac when they start investigating his personal affairs.

Billy Zane, who played the psycho in Dead Calm, is an excellent choice for the lead role. Zane adopts the right self-deprecating tone and has a well-toned body that fills out the skin-tight costume impressively. He seems to be enjoying himself, which is important for this sort of part. Kristy Swanson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) slides into the love interest role with gusto, showing enough spunk to avoid fading into the background. Catherine Zeta Jones plays an exotic, athletic bad girl. The villains are Treat Williams, who has as much fun here as Jack Nicholson did in Batman, and James Remar.

Although The Phantom is more often enjoyable than not, it lacks that special characteristic necessary to provide it with a unique identity. Arriving in the midst of so many "can't miss" offerings, I expect it to sink like a rock, moving quickly to "dollar theaters" then to video. I'd like to be able to champion this film, but the truth is that I'm tiring of the genre as a whole, and, while The Phantom opts for a different tone than most of its brethren, it's still not an especially memorable motion picture. This is the kind of movie that offers modest entertainment while you're in the theater, but is forgotten by the time you get home.

Phantom, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1996-06-07
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1