Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Film Review: THE PHANTOM (1996, Simon Wincer)

Stars: 3.8 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Tag-line: "SLAM EVIL!"
Notable Cast or Crew: Billy Zane (TITANIC, TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT), Kristy Swanson (DEADLY FRIEND, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), Treat Williams (DEAD HEAT, HAIR), Catherine Zeta-Jones (ENTRAPMENT, THE MASK OF ZORRO), James Remar (RENT-A-COP, THE WARRIORS, 48 HRS.), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (MORTAL KOMBAT, PEARL HARBOR), David Proval (INNOCENT BLOOD, THE SOPRANOS), Casey Siemaszko (THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, BACK TO THE FUTURE), Samantha Eggar (THE BROOD, CURTAINS), Jon Tenney (MASTERS OF HORROR: HOMECOMING, TOMBSTONE), Patrick McGoohan (THE PRISONER, SCANNERS, SECRET AGENT).
Screenplay by Jeffrey Boam (THE DEAD ZONE, LETHAL WEAPON 2, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, THE LOST BOYS).  Second unit directed by legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, LIVE AND LET DIE, SUPERMAN, BLADE RUNNER, BRAZIL, RETURN OF THE JEDI).  Produced by Robert Evans (CHINATOWN, MARATHON MAN), Alan Ladd Jr. (BRAVEHEART, VILLAIN), and Joe Dante (GREMLINS, EERIE INDIANA), among others.
Best One-liner: "No smoking in the skull cave."

In a familiar, darkened alleyway:

"You know how I've been on a Billy Zane kick?"
–"Yeah, I guess."
"Well check out this one-sheet: look what I finally got my hands on."
–"SLAM EVIL?"
"No, THE PHANTOM!"
–"Well, it looks like it's called SLAM EVIL."
"No, it says THE PHANTOM.  See, down there."
–"Yeah, exactly.  It's all the way 'down there.'  So this movie is called 'SLAM EVIL' and it stars The Phantom.  Wait, is that Billy Zane?"
"Do you listen to anything I say?"
–"Not really.  Is it worth seeing?"
"Yeah.  It's good.  I mean, I use that word relatively."
–"I always assume you do."
"It's no TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, is what I mean."
–"What could be?"
"Basically, it's a family-friendly swashbuckling superhero flick with a sense of fun and grand adventure.  It's a product of that four or five year span when Hollywood kept making pulpy and/or Art Deco-ish vintage comic book movies that the public didn't really want.  Stuff like DICK TRACY, THE ROCKETEER, THE SHADOW, and the like."
–"I love THE ROCKETEER."
"So do I.  I'm just saying it wasn't a super-tenable business model."
–"So what is THE PHANTOM?"
"He's a 1930s comic book hero who's become one of the best-selling and longest-running characters of all time. He's been the subject of serials, TV shows, video games and the like.

He's basically Indiana Jones combined with the Lone Ranger and DANGER: DIABOLIK.  And that ranks pretty high in my book."
–"I like Indiana Jones."
"Well, good, cause this thing is packed with Indy references, in no small part due to the participation of Jeffrey Boam (co-writer of LAST CRUSADE) and Vic Armstrong (stunt coordinator and Indy double for the entire trilogy).  There are fedoras; rope bridge scenes;

 Though this is a little more SORCERER than TEMPLE OF DOOM.

missing artifacts with magical, face-exploding powers; there's scenes where a talisman points the way on a map with a colored laser:

 From RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

 
 From THE PHANTOM.

similar locales and production design:
 
 From RAIDERS.


From PHANTOM.

and there's even an extended truck chase scene that features some of the exact, blow-by-blow choreography from the classic one in RAIDERS:



And one moment, with floating CGI skulls:
 
 almost prefigures the finale of an Indiana Jones movie that shall remain nameless."
–"Wow.
"Yeah."
–"I remember a way's back, you were trying to make the case that Billy Zane's eyes and eyebrows were the true stars of TITANIC.  How are they here?"
"Well, it's like how in CYBORG, we meet Van Damme's isolated leg before we even meet Van Damme.  Adhering to that logic, we naturally get an extreme closeup of Zane's gaze before we see the rest of him."

–"I think he can see into my soul!"
"Yeah, he can.  Also, speaking of TITANIC, there's a scene here where The Phantom pops up in a ladies' locker room on a boat– and promptly apologizes to the damsels."


–"Billy Zane being chivalrous on a boat... now I've seen everything!"
"Exactly.  He's a very polite superhero, not unlike, as I said, The Lone Ranger, Superman, or perhaps Adam West's take on Batman.  Here he is, taking a moment out of an action sequence to pick up and return an old lady's purse."

–"Very nice."
"Also, he gives Kristy Swanson some black pearls in a scene eerily reminiscent of when he gave Kate Winslet 'The Heart of the Ocean' in TITANIC."

–"Kristy Swanson!  I had quite the crush on her, back when I first saw DEADLY FRIEND."
"Yeah, well now you can relive that torrid affaire de coeur all over again."
–"So wait, exactly what the hell is going on here?"
"It's a bit of a hodgepodge.  There's evil international corporations, vast pirate conspiracies, magical skulls, tribal sorcery, gunplay, horseplay, swordplay, wordplay, spandex-play..."
–"Who else is in this thing?"
"Our big villain is Treat Williams, who knows exactly what movie he's in, and he's knockin' it out of the park.  A typical scene might see him greedily clasping a magic skull and moaning, 'Ohhhhh, baby!'

Conversely, his top henchman, played by James Remar, is so used to playing it straight, he's struggling with the tone a little bit.  He plays it sort of like 'Indiana Jones gone to the dark side,' but it feels occasionally awkward.  Somehow this works in the film's favor."

–"You mean like that scene in TEMPLE OF DOOM when Harrison Ford drinks the Blood of Kali and acts like he's kicking heroin?"
"Let's forget about that for a minute.  He also gets to rock out some 'Gestapo chic' when he's fighting The Phantom in the city.  Plus, his counterpart is a villainous henchwoman played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, hereafter to be referred to as 'CZJ.'  This movie might be CZJ's finest hour."
 
–"Can we not do that?  The CZJ thing?'
"Ohhh, okay.  Anyway, she's out of control and cartoonish, like a secondary villain from CARMEN SANDIEGO.  If she had a mustache, she'd be twirling it.  The beauty of her performance can be distilled in a twenty-seven second video I have entitled 'Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones' Finest Slap Battles.'"

–"Intense!"
"I'll say.  Finally, there's a nice tertiary villain bit by David Proval, a notorious 'gangster-character-actor' whose performances often genuinely scare me."

–"That's all well and good, but it seems to me you're giving Billy Zane the short shrift here.  Is he not Ama-Zane-ing?"
"Oh, the Zane Factor is pretty high.  It's hard to believe this was nearly a Joel Schumacher movie starring Dolph Lundgren–"
–"WHAAAAT?!"
"Yeah, at least he got to make THE PHANTOM... OF THE OPERA, eventually.  Hell, and before that, directors from Joe Dante to Sergio Leone have wanted to take a crack at The Phantom."
–"You're blowing my mind.  Who would have been Leone's Phantom?"
"I could see Eastwood, Coburn, or Bronson, frankly.  But back to Zane.  Yes, he's ama-Zane-ing, or whatever, it's just that the role isn't one of his flashiest.  Don't despair, though, there are some fine moments.  For instance, off the top of my head:

BILLY ZANE WILL LEAP OFF A HORSE AND


ONTO THE HOOD OF A TRUCK, BUT JAMES REMAR WON'T NOTICE FOR HALF A SECOND


...AND THEN HE WILL NOTICE



BILLY ZANE WILL LOUNGE AROUND, HALF-NUDE, TALKING TO HIS DEAD DAD (WHO IS PATRICK MCGOOHAN)



BILLY ZANE WILL PET THE TIGER


(WHO, INCIDENTALLY, WAS PROVIDED BY ANIMALS R US)



BILLY ZANE WILL HITCH A RIDE ON THE UNDERBELLY OF A PLANE, LIKE HE'S ROBERT DE NIRO IN CAPE FEAR



 BILLY ZANE'S THIGHS WILL COME OUT OF NOWHERE


AND STRANGLE YOU


TILL YOU PASS OUT

–"Holy cow!"
"Yup.  Naturally, all of this leads up to a final confrontation where Zane and Williams face off while wielding magical lasers; Williams' emanate from the purloined skull, and Zane's shoot forth from his wicked skull ring.  Consequently, it sorta feels like the end of SPACEBALLS."




 
 
 –"Now that's a thing of beauty."
"It sure is."
–"Oh, by the way– is there smoking in the skull cave?"


"Don't say that too loudly:  Billy Zane's thighs are apt to pop out of nowhere and strangle you unto unconsciousness.  In other words:  no smoking in the skull cave."

–Sean Gill


EDIT:  I just discovered the existence of the following vintage "Got Milk?" ad, and I must include it, without comment, for the sake of future generations.


9 comments:

Cannon said...

"The Phantom."

"I thought that was just a superstition."

"Oh, no. He’s real. And he won’t die. I know–I killed him once, and he isn’t dead!"

"That doesn’t make sense."



And purple spandex hoods off to any movie innocent enough to feature a scene where the Phantom’s wolf, Devil, talks to the Phantom’s horse, Hero.

Devil: "Woof!"

Hero: "Whihinigh!" *snort*

And I adore all the pulpy terms or premises including 'All Female Air Pirates' and 'Jungle Patrol' and 'The Devil’s Vortex'.

But I think my single favorite moment in the whole film is during the Phantom and Diana’s bi-plane escape set-piece where they climb out onto the pontoon and, when she asks him, "Who’s flying the plane?!" the Phantom replies casually but assuredly, "I jammed the stick!"

I just love that. I mean, of course...of course he "jammed the stick". He’s the motherfuckin’ Phantom: problem solved.

John Guedes said...

Although I've never seen it, it's interesting to read all the parallels to the Indy films. Makes me think of THE MUMMY.

Oh and by the way, this particular exchange had me in hysterics:
–"You mean like that scene in TEMPLE OF DOOM when Harrison Ford drinks the Blood of Kali and acts like he's kicking heroin?"

"Let's forget about that for a minute.

Buck Atwater said...

I might have to revisit this based on the cast alone. I remember seeing it on video back in the 90's but I didn't appreciate the power of the Zane factor at the time, I just saw him as a lot of purple spandex.

But Treat Williams, James Remar AND Patrick McGoohan too? I'm in.

Mike B. said...

Oh yeah! I was hoping you'd get around to this one, and you totally hit all the marks here, I really can't think of anything to add! The Carmen Sandiego remark was particularly perfect, though! A related tidbit: A few weeks back I was driving on some far out Chicagoland highway when I saw a billboard that made me spontaneously giggle -- it was an ad for a local production of The Sound Of Music featuring none other than Billy Zane!

Cannon said...


One more tidbit to add...

I saw this on opening weekend back in the summer of 96 and, as part of a 'limited time only' promotional deal, the bigger theater chains were handing metal Phantom skull rings free with the purchase of any ticket.

I still have mine to this day. How awesome is that?!

Sean Gill said...

Cannon,
Excellent observations. And that's awesome about the ring! I hope it sits in a place of honor, so you can slam evil at your own leisure.

John,
Thanks, bud– glad you enjoyed!

Buck,
Yeah, the cast is pretty great, and fairly unexpected– especially McGoohan, who you'd assume circa 1996 would have been in a drunken stupor.

Mike,
Glad to be of service! But the most pressing issue is: are you attending THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and are we getting a full report?

And everyone: I have amended this review with a recently discovered photo of a "Got Milk?" ad that happens to involve Mr. Zane as The Phantom. It's my gift to you, and Mr. Zane's gift to the world.

Mike B. said...

With tickets starting at only $29, I just might! And that 'Got Milk' ad is tremendous!

Phil Hubbs said...

I knew about the Indy similarities of course, but I never realised how close the comparisons were haha

Sean Gill said...

Mike,

Heheh, well lemme know if you end up seeing it, and if it's Ama-Zane-ing!

Phil,
Yeah, it's clear that Wincer and the producers wanted to use Indy as a touchstone/point of reference, and but a lot of the little homages are so incredibly specific and spot-on, it's possible some of 'em are just in-jokes from the likes of Boam and Vic Armstrong.