Lionsgate // 1996 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 12th, 2010
Is it possible for a film to be a throwback to the past while still being ahead of its time? That's the case with the 1996 superhero adventure The Phantom, a massively overlooked and underrated movie that suffered from being ahead of the comic book-movie curve. While a film based on Lee Falk's popular 1930s comic strip was never likely to break through and find huge success with audiences, it was even less likely when it was one of the only comic movies released in the mid-'90s (sandwiched between Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, to give you a sense of where comic book movies were at). That's a shame, as The Phantom is a tremendously winning and entertaining adventure that's held up better than pretty much any of the original Batman films.
Billy Zane (Titanic) stars as the titular Phantom (a.k.a. Kit Walker), the "ghost who walks," who has protected the jungles of Bengalla against evil threats for centuries (he's not immortal; a new Phantom replaces the old one once he's too old or too dead to carry on). One such threat comes in the form of Xander Drax (Treat Williams, Deep Rising), a madman bent on obtaining the Skulls of Touganda, three mystical skulls that, when combined, will give he who wields them ultimate power. Aiding the Phantom in his quest to stop Drax is plucky heroine Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), a city girl and ex-girlfriend of Kit Walker. The pair have their work cut out for them; not only do they have to contend with Drax, but also his henchman Quill (James Remar, The Girl Next Door), who killed Walker's father (The Prisoner's Patrick McGoohan, the previous Phantom), the beautiful and deadly Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones in one of her early film roles) and a band of pirates known as the Sengh Brotherhood.
The Phantom was originally conceived as a parody of adventure serials by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and the film's first director, my beloved Joe Dante. He eventually left the project (though he retains a producer credit) and directing duties went to Australian filmmaker Simon Wincer (who had previously helmed both the underrated Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Quigley Down Under). Wincer and company retained Boam's script, but mostly play it straight; as much as I'd like to side with Dante on this one (who insists the material was meant to be funny), I'm glad The Phantom went with this approach. It still has an obvious sense of humor about itself and a fun, goofy spirit, but those elements only work because the film still works as an old-fashioned adventure film (complete with cool stunts like a guy jumping onto a horse form an airplane in mid-flight). It never takes itself too seriously (how seriously can you take a movie about a guy in purple tights attempting to blend in with the jungle?), but also never devolves into an ironic mockery of the source material. The Phantom may be silly, but it's sincere. I like that.
A huge part of what makes the film so much fun is the performance of Treat Williams, whose Xander Drax is one of my favorite movie villains of the last 20 years. Rarely has a screen villain been so genuinely tickled and excited about his own evil plan -- not in a sadistic, scenery-chewing way, but in a "today's-going-to-be-a-great-day-I'm-having-a-blast" way. He's amused and downright giddy about the prospect of ultimate power, and Williams' endless optimism is both infectious and hilarious. Drax is such a great character that we miss him whenever we're spending time with just the Phantom. Treat Williams totally steals the movie, and his performance alone makes The Phantom worth seeing.
The Lionsgate Blu-ray of The Phantom does a nice job of presenting the film. Though far from being reference material, the 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is bright and colorful, particularly when it comes to the lush green jungle, and occasionally showcases some nice detail. The occasional flaw is visible and several shots are softer than they should be, but it's still the best that The Phantom has ever looked on home video. The 7.1 DTS-HD audio track is particularly zippy; I don't even have seven-channel capabilities on my home system, but even in the standard five channels the audio track packs quite a punch. The dialogue is clear, the score is rousing and the action effects are immersive and separated across the rear speakers nicely. The audio track is as fun as the film itself. The only extra included is the original theatrical trailer.
Like another great superhero (and often overlooked) superhero film from the 1990s, The Rocketeer, The Phantom is a fun throwback to the classic adventure serials of the '30s and '40s. It came too early to ride the wave of affection for comic book movies that boomed in the 2000s, but it's worth seeking out for those who missed it -- and, let's face it, a lot of people missed it. Here's hoping the movie discovers a new audience on Blu-ray.
No smoking in the skull cave.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG