By Ryan Stanley
As long as I can remember I’ve always been a fan of pulpy fiction; whether it been in the form of detective stories, war stories, westerns, or even adventure series that signified the rise of comic book superheroes to come. However these comics and novels never really translated well to screen with mass appeal, with the likes of The Rocketeer, and The Shadow barely making back their budgets at the box office, even though critically they weren’t maligned. With this in mind I decided to watch The Phantom, to see if I could pinpoint why these films weren’t more successful.
The film takes place in 1938, with The Phantom, a descendent of a line of African superheroes, travelling to New York City to thwart a wealthy criminal genius from obtaining three magic skulls which would give him the secret to ultimate power.
Firstly, the acting within the film is all adequate to great. There’s camp, over-the-topness when it’s called for, and restraint from the actors when needed. Treat Williams as the evil, Xander Drax, is the highlight of the film acting wise, filling the ‘Lex Luthor’ role perfectly; chewing the scenery with every line of dialogue that flies from his mouth. Billy Zane, meanwhile gives, in my opinion, his very best film role; showing great stern acting in the films action scenes, but also excellent comic timing with each quip he says. It’s a true shame his career didn’t take off from this.
Throughout the film there’s many instances of great, pulpy action; all the set pieces within the film are excellent. From the opening chase scene (which involves some rope bridge shenanigans), through many high flying plane sequences, right to the finale featuring an impressive battle involving pirates, the action is all exhilarating and makes the film appear to fly by. The film is also incredibly beautiful; one of the best looking films on the 1990s. The cinematography, not only in the action scenes, but throughout is incredible, and the sets really evoke a sense of time and give the film a true pulp feel.
You get a sense that the piece really wears its influences on its sleeve, notably the Indiana Jones series. This doesn’t come as a surprise when you find that the writer of this wrote The Last Crusade. And although these influences don’t detract from the film itself, it would’ve been nice to see a little more originality from it. The script really is the weakest part of the film. It may be snappy, fun and brisk, but the clear cuts that occurred during rewrites are plain to see; the relationship between The Phantom and his possible love interest is skirted over at such pace you can’t buy it, as well as character motives and alliances happening within a flash without explanation. The writing did make me long for more however, with just the right amount of lore and backstory being presented to the audience for them to want to see this explored more in future instalments, sadly which never came.
On the whole, The Phantom, is great, pulpy fun, with excellent visuals and a game cast to boot. You want to see more adventures of him and his sidekicks, and hopefully with the rise of comic book adaptations from the past 20 years, which it can be argued stemmed from these early to mid-90s films, we yet get to see more from The Phantom.