Friday, May 28, 2010

Joie' De Vivre On Celluloid: The Phantom


When I was a child and this film came out, all I needed to want to go was the thirty second advertisement on TV. I wasted no time in dragging my mother, my friend, his brother and their mom to the movies and we all went to see The Phantom. I came. I saw. I fell in love. And now, revisiting it again, after 15 years (short of a few sparse VHS rentals from my long gone childhood), it's as good as ever.

The legend of the Phantom starts when a young boy, the last survivor of a pirate attack, is washed ashore on a mysterious island called Bengalla. He swears to devote his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms. When he grows to be a man, he adopts the identity of "The Phantom", a masked avenger. The role of the Phantom is passed on from father to son through centuries, causing people to believe he is the same, seemingly immortal man, giving him nicknames such as "The Ghost Who Walks" and "The Man Who Never Dies". The film tells us the story of Kit Walker, the 21st Phantom (Zane), and his attempts to prevent the rich madman Xander Drax (Treat Williams) from obtaining a weapon of doom, the so-called "Skulls of Touganda", possession of which will give him the secret to ultimate power and world domination.

The thing about this movie, is that it takes it's time. It doesn't rush the importance of setting up the thrills. There is dialogue in this film after all, and they share to hooks us in, not just to clothesline the action. It's frightful information, witty adventure dialogue, and 30's scat-speech, if you will. Some are well told stories. And all the while, we hear the nuances of old world adventure epics with the very appropriate score in the background by David Newman. Brother of my favorite composer, Thomas. At times it's scary, at times it's intriguing and filled with mystery, and at times it's bold and noble, just like The Phantom himself.

It's impressive enough to see two fire engine red biplanes fly in, and force a small commercial jet to land in the water. It's then double impressive when the attacker also happens to be (an early in her career) Catherine Zeta-Jones. She trampses in, complete with black leather bomber jacket, cap and goggles, looking terrific and acting devilish. She points the pistol and lets her words drip of her sultry lips, loving every second she's alive and in control as a villianess. But watch what happens when "The Ghost Who Walks" intends to rescue the girl they kidnapped from the boat they bring her to. 

It's like James Bond in a purple suit. Bond. James Bond. It's so smooth, like the way Bond would order his drink, handling a script riddled with adventure cliche's and spinning them into 1930's film noir/old world adventure gold. Billy Zane constructs this character out of everything this kind of hero needs to be and more. He tells his jokes almost snarlingly to the enemy with a smirk in his eye--then smiles grandly when he beats them. He laughs and has the playfulness of old-world heroics. Classic TV hero shows and comic strips. We feel Indy, and James, and even Zorro.

And something new... The Phantom all on his wonderful own.

And because of the setting and the character, we are enabled to see action in a totally different form. Biplanes zooming across the jungle, cops on horses in New York City, went it was for real. The scenes of action are inventive, the movie utilizes what's at it's disposal to the max. And plays with it's elements well. This phantom has M1911 pistols, but uses them only to disarm others or intimidate (or slide down an elevator cable multiple floors). He has companions and help, a wolf and white horse and local jungle villagers. His pets are very real, very trained and very ready to assist their master. (Just watch what that damn horse can do). He has actual hero muscle, courtesy of Billy Zane's intensive training. The stunts are real and the camera sweeps and pans and holds onto the action. CGI is no where to be found (short of one or two shots in the ending sequence). The 45 million dollar budget was used very well.

People in this movie smoke pipes, have big manly mustaches and their hair is dripping with oil and hairspray. The costumes were spot on and uncanny, amazing to see and feel the time of the country I so wished I lived in. People wear fedoras and big heavy coats, even the cab drivers have uniforms. Awesome. Which brings me to the set design. New York is New Yorkier, large, alive, horns honking and New Yorkers... Are, well, New Yorking, ya know? (When are those things not true, actually?) Gangsters are epitomized and women have just the right amount of pulp (fiction). The buildings are grand and the streets magical. The jungles' greens pop and waterfalls spill fresh blue water adding to the beauty. The skull cave is a big, real ass cave; with twists and turns and hallways and rooms. Things are dashing and fantastical.

Adventure magic, enchantment is saturated in the celluloid this film was shot on. Everything The Phantom should be, is in this film. It's no surprise to me that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade scribe Jeffrey Boam wrote the script. Pitch perfect and fleshing out all the thing that make for a fantastical time. Simon Wincer has a wonderful eye for this sort of thing, it absolutely escapes me that this film didn't take off. Actually it doesn't, a guy in a purple suit jumping around in pre-WWII era, isn't as attractive as it sounds. But once you watch it, you'd probably punch yourself for doubting how cool it could be.

The Phantom predates Superman and Batman. February 1936 he was a mere daily newspaper strip, then a Sunday strip in May '39 (feature to my right is the first one). At the peak of his popularity, The Phantom was read by over a hundred million people a day. It continues to be a re-explored comic and character with hundreds of different incarnations through various comic book companies.

News hit two years back, that since the DVD sales and rentals are doing so good, they were rebooting the character and giving us The Phantom: Legacy. There is virtually nothing new on this project. Tim Boyle is contracted to write the film, Sam Worthington has been a name tossed around from their history as a potential Kit Walker. There is no director attached as of August 2009 and the film is at a standstill news wise.

This film, in essence, is Hollywood classicness. From the music to the set and costume design to the action to actors and everything they bring. The direction and script is in top form. Although this film isn't as good as I remember it to be. It's better; and get's 4 outa 4.

There's an old jungle saying, "When Phantom moves, time stands still..." That is true as well when you watch this film. Time stops and for one hundred minutes, you feel like a kid eating popcorn again, and life is great.

(A most pleased) Munki out. 

No comments:

Post a Comment