The Phantom
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The Phantom (1996)    Extra Cheesy  
The movie opens with the words, “For those who came in late…” and then there’s an extremely neat little rehash of the Phantom origin. This only takes a minute or two since the original comic version is only 8 panels long, but it’s a good way to set up the story. Then we dive into our adventure proper, our setting the jungle of Bangalla in 1938. The thoroughly unpleasant Quill (James Remar) is driving his truck full of goons through the trees to find a mysterious artifact, one of the Skulls of Toganda. We know he’s evil for a couple of reasons, one is that he’s nasty to the native kid acting as their guide, another is he’s being played by James Remar. Quill has a small skull mark branded on his face, a sign that at sometime in the past he tangled with The Phantom.

Quill and company manage to find the Skull but not without some commotion. This alerts The Phantom in his cave nearby, and mounting his faithful steed Hero and with wolf Devil in tow, heads off to stop the scoundrels. Phantom tangles with the bad guys and notices a mark on Quill’s arm: the dreaded spider-web tattoo of the Singh Pirates. The villains leave their child guide tied up in the truck as it sits in the middle of a breaking rope bridge. The Phantom stages a very daring rescue, but can’t stop the bad guys escaping as well.

Later in his cave Phantom, now unmasked, pores over ancient journals. Our hero is revealed to be Kit Walker (an extremely buff Billy Zane), who mulls over the situation with advice from the ghost of his father (Patrick McGoohan). It’s generally agreed that the Singh Pirates looking for the Skulls is a Bad Thing.

Meanwhile, in Long Island New York, adventuresome lass Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) returns home to her uncle’s mansion – causing some consternation for arriving during a society party wearing her ‘woodsy flannels’ and, Heaven forbid, trousers! Her uncle is newspaper magnate Dave Palmer (Bill Smitrovich), who is investigating the activities of nefarious businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams). To this end he sends Diana by seaplane to Bangalla to meet with Capt. Horton (Robert Coleby), head of the local British (yaay!) garrison, who is holding a couple of Drax’s goons from the earlier daring rescue. The flight doesn’t go terribly well, as the plane is forced down and raided by Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her band of female sky pirates. Word reaches Kit that Diana is being held by Sala and Quill on a ship at the Bangalla docks, and before you can say ‘another daring rescue’ she’s free and meeting up with Captain Horton in the Phantom’s hideout, the Skull Cave. The Phantom, discovering Drax is behind the search for the Toganda Skulls, decides to head for New York. We also learn that Kit knew Diana in his college days but had to disappear without saying goodbye – his father had been killed and he needed to go home and become The Phantom.

Back in New York Drax is busy explaining to his associates (a couple of Mafia types, corrupt Police Commissioner Farley (Al Ruscio), Sala and Quill) that the three Toganda Skulls combine to form a weapon of tremendous power. The second Skull is part of a display at the Museum Of World History, but Drax’s excursion to steal it coincides with Kit’s own. Before long it’s another daring escape, though unfortunately Drax does manage to capture Diana. The two Skulls point out the location of the third; a mysterious uncharted island. The Phantom manages to stow away on Drax’s plane and pretty soon the principal leads are exploring a shadowy cave on the island, where they encounter the last Skull’s owner The Great Kabai Singh (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), descendant of the original founder of the Singh Pirates. I love this movie, just when you think it can’t get any cooler Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa turns up as a pirate! Can The Phantom stop Drax possessing the Skulls, deal with Quill - who just happened to have killed his Father - and stage the most daring rescue yet? Of course he can!

The Phantom was a spectacular flop when released in 1996, unable to compete with that year’s big hits like Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible and The Rock. In a summer of high-tech exploding action it seems that audiences weren’t interested in a superhero with no powers or nifty gadgetry, who defeated the bad guys using only his fists and a couple of automatics. This is a great shame since the film is an absolute blast of fun, and easily one of the most entertaining summer blockbusters of that or any year.

21st century filmgoers may believe it’s only in the last few years that superhero films have been truly faithful to their source material, but to this amateur’s eye The Phantom follows the comic strip very closely. Devil, Hero, The Skull Cave, the pirates... all present and correct. Even the Phantom’s costume is straight from the comic page: Billy Zane spent months working out to get a physique rugged enough to fill the suit effectively – no padding or rubber nipples here, thank you very much.

Only a few comic book heroes have really gone on to big screen success. This is not one of them and turns into a flat action flick. However its not for the want of trying. It doesn't take itself seriously at all from the start and whereas other adaptations have put style over substance, this one manages to balance them both quite well. It is like watching a big screen version of the old pulp serials (in fact it's even like watching Indiana Jones in a suspect purple costume at times!). Billy Zane is good as the Phantom. Comic book heroes need to have some level of normality about them and thankfully Zane manages to balance the needs of his "everyday Joe" quality with the physicality needed to become the Phantom. Treat Williams is completely over-the-top as the bad guy and camps it up well. Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer) might look good but she doesn't have enough on-screen presence to make her a believable leading lady (although at least she doesn't scream and act dumb like some other damsels-in-distress). Catherine Zeta-Jones also stars as Williams' henchwoman. She must have been taking lessons from him on how to play camp bad buys because she is just as bad in this as he is. Possibly the problem with this is it is too simplistic. The action isn't very intense, it's not very violent and there isn't a great deal of sexuality and blood involved. It is a perfect family film - unfortunately because it doesn't push the boundaries very much, it faded away into the background as more controversial films barged their way through and more famous comic book heroes were given more air time.

In spite of all this, 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.

The Phantom & all related characters and indicia © 2003 King Features Syndicate, Inc.