Monday, June 27, 2011

SUMMER OF ACTION! -- For Those Who Came In Late

When I was growing up, one of my favorite daily activities was the time I spent reading the newspaper comic strip adventures of Lee Falk's iconic action hero The Phantom. Though this activity took all of about 30 seconds I can still recall the thrill that came with flipping to the comic section and drinking in the panels that made up his latest exploits.

Also known as "The Ghost Who Walks", The Phantom was a masked, seemingly-immortal jungle protector who lived in a skull-shaped cave in the country of Bengalla, had a trained wolf named Devil and even found time to romance the beautiful Diana Palmer while he was fighting poachers, criminals and modern-day pirates. How cool is that?

As it turned out, The Phantom wasn't immortal at all but the latest in a long line of masked heroes descended from Christopher Walker, a young boy whose father had been killed in 1536 by pirates during an attack on the high seas. The stories I read as a kid focused on Kit Walker, the 21st Phantom, and were still written by Falk, who worked on the strip up until his death in 1999.

Though my local daily doesn't carry the strip – nor do I get the paper on a daily basis – I was happy to see that the strip still runs in some papers. Unfortunately, I doubt there's a ten-year-old out there who is chowing down on bowls of King Vitaman while he reads and re-reads The Phantom as I was doing at that age. (I can't remember 99% of what I "learned" in college but can still recall the 1978 wedding of Diana and The Phantom – attended by Falk creation Mandrake the Magician! – and the birth of twins Kit and Heloise about a year later.)

Along with the Adam West version of Batman, Falk's creation was my first real exposure to the world of "superheroes". And while neither character has any super powers, the two masked crimefighters kicked as much ass as any son of Krypton.

So you can imagine my excitement when the 1990s brought news that Hollywood was bringing the purple-clad hero's exploits to the big screen. It didn't take long for me to discover that the project was likely doomed before it began – attempts to talk the project up with co-workers were largely met with with blank stares, a disinterested "who?" or the mistaken (and somewhat embarrassing) notion that I was super excited about a Phantom of the Opera movie.


In the rush to plunder the vaults for ready-made heroes, Hollywood had set their sites on the 1930s and 40s. And why not? There was plenty of material to draw inspiration from – including art deco sets, eye-catching cars, snappy clothes and villains simply dripping with WWII-era evil.

Warren Beatty's ill-advised DICK TRACY (1990) had started the ball rolling and though the square-jawed cop was another of my boyhood faves, even I was embarrassed by the end result. As well as the t-shirt I had to wear as my ticket to the midnight premiere.

A year later THE ROCKETEER gave it a shot. In the process, the filmmakers reinvented Hollywood, scrubbed Dave Stevens' comic clean, and turned Timothy Dalton into the lamest villain since Snidely Whiplash. Hey, at least we got to look at Jennifer Connolly. Oh, I mean Jennifer Connolly's boobs.

1994's THE SHADOW was another depressing strike for pulp/comic genre cinema, offering up a miscast Alec Baldwin, the shrieking Penelope Anne Miller and a hopelessly hammy Tim Curry (these days far better cast as voice talent in direct-to-video Scooby-Doo animated movies).

By 1996 THE PHANTOM was ready for his closeup – and while it fares slightly better than the aforementioned efforts I might just feel that way because I genuinely love the character.

Though it seems to be aimed at kids and families (yet is laced with more swear words than I'd be comfortable with my 4-year-old daughter hearing), THE PHANTOM is like an inbred retread of the Indiana Jones saga. In other words, there are lots of jungle chases, jungle natives, evil pillagers, power-hungry madmen and escapes from "certain death" that are supposed to remind us of cliffhanger serials. Unfortunately, I'm probably the last generation that has any concept of the serial adventure.

Watching the film again last night – and desperately hoping that I had somehow misjudged it all those years ago – sorta made me mad at what a blown opportunity the film is. Billy Zane is perfectly cast as the titular hero and to his credit had bulked up to play a jungle avenger in a skintight purple costume. While we have yet to see a Dark Knight who could truly wear the Batman costume, Zane is ripped and his dedication to playing the character shows. (Stories at the time of production had Bruce Campbell in consideration for the role but Zane, a fan of the comic, not only won the producers over but largely nails the character. Frankly, I think he would have made a great Batman.)

Unfortunately, the creators of the cinematic version of THE PHANTOM forgot a couple of key ingredients from both the character's comic roots and the Indiana Jones recipe. (Ironically, the flick was the last written by INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE scribe Jeffrey Boam.) Namely, a hero (and villains) that we have some interest in... and would it kill you to have a good storyline while you're at it?

Zane may be charming and heroic but Kristy Swanson is a bland, forgettable Diana Palmer and James Remar should be thankful that Treat Williams is aboard to wrestle the Shameless Overactor of 1996 crown away from him thanks to his mustache-twisting turn as evil industrialist Xander Drax (yaaaawwwwnnnn). Attempts to shove in too many storylines from the Falk archives make the whole thing feel crowded and the likes of a pre-stardom Catherine Zeta-Jones as the Pussy Galore-esque bi-sexual (?) leader of an all-girl squadron of pilots feel grafted on despite its roots in the source material.

I would love to love THE PHANTOM. Hell, I'd love to like THE PHANTOM. But the whole thing feels like little more than some film version of a live action stunt show or a ride at a Florida amusement park. I want to see The Ghost Who Walks get the proper treatment as much as any genre character and if SyFy's recent attempt to relaunch the character with some emo kid in a hoodie who wears a suit that makes him faster and stronger is any indication, I may be waiting a long, long time.

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