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Class of 1996: ‘The Phantom’

by on June 27, 2016
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Billy Zane stars as Kit Walker, also known as the Phantom, in "The Phantom," a 1996 Paramount Pictures release directed by Simon Wincer.

In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in December’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.

As visual effects go, the summer of 1996 — and its advent of reasonably convincing CGI — sounded a closing bell on most creative workarounds.

Why slave over meticulous miniatures or mammoth mattes when the precise, if plasticized, exactitude of software awaits? (For a legendarily woeful counterpoint, see the scene below in an otherwise excellent movie from the following summer.)

Looking back, it’s interesting to see just how 1996’s summer blockbusters generally bifurcated into two camps — those that let it ride on digital wizardry to differing degrees of success (“Twister,” “Dragonheart,” “The Frighteners”) and those slotting zeroes and ones among practical work with, it bears noting, more consistent black-ink returns (“Mission: Impossible,” “The Rock” and “Independence Day”).

Even then, “The Phantom” surely seemed an archaic anomaly — a “What? Really?” throwback to when dropping nets on thugs could sufficiently incapacitate them. And with a paltry $17 million take, modern horsepower ran this modestly restored classic right off the road.

Created for a comic strip in 1936 by the late Lee Falk — who drew inspiration from El Cid and King Arthur — the Phantom was seen by 100 million people daily at its peak. But by 1996, many syndicates had scrubbed the Phantom (although the strip still runs today, now under its third caretaker). As a tagline, “Slam evil!” informed newcomers only that this film’s marketing team was probably quite terrible. And in a summer where software-generated spectacle became coin of the realm, “The Phantom” offered no computer-generated effects of note. (Please save your Billy Zane jokes for later.)

Instead, director Simon Wincer’s vision of Falk’s character — highly regarded as the first masked / tight-costumed superhero figure and a transitional figure into comic-book ubiquity — was but a faintly visible retro-adventure ripple from “Dick Tracy’s” success in 1990. “The Rocketeer” brought reasonable returns in 1991 while “The Shadow” stumbled two summers earlier. Without CGI to make flying, web-slinging and Hulking out more believable, it’s easy to see why superhero cinema then more or less belonged to Batman.

Indeed, the Phantom is best described in shorthand as a blend of film-noir Batman and pulp-fiction Tarzan — a collision of literary legend, radio-play personality, and comic-book spectacular. (The Phantom eventually made his appearance in comic books as one of few heroes to have been part of both DC and Marvel imprints.)

Kit Walker is 21st in a line of crime fighters dating back to 1536 — avenging piracy, greed and cruelty as the Phantom from his Skull Cave in the fictitious African nation of Bangalla. Without any superpower to speak of, Kit relies solely on strength, firepower and, given the Phantom’s 400 years of uninterrupted work, the spin of immortality.

Instead of digital effects personnel, “The Phantom’s” closing credits are clotted with aerial photography supervisors, horse wranglers and swordmasters. And although it’s neither particularly thrilling nor inventive as you may hope, it’s still a moderately pleasant last remaining artifact of an era when movies were, by necessity, handsomely hand-mounted.

Set aside the ostensible, and laughable, notion that “The Phantom” was going to somehow make a star out of Zane, then best known for variously villainous roles in “Back to the Future,” “Dead Calm” and “Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.” (Really, we are near the point when you can make your Zane jokes.) The real stars here are below-the-line talents like production designer Paul Peters, art director Lisette Thomas, set decorator Amy Wells and costume designer Marlene Stewart. Even on a limited budget, their work majestically renders the world that “the Ghost Who Walks” protects with a pop and panache equaling Tim Burton’s Batman films.

You’ll want to pause and pore over art deco appointments in villain Xander Drax’s office. Building off the lavish real-life exteriors of Phantom fan Hugh Hefner’s mansion, this crew rapturously renders a high-society party. Cameras linger lovingly on the polished, glistening hood ornaments of Pierce Arrow automobiles. One glorious wide shot of the Phantom bounding across cars on a traffic-clogged street to his trusty horse, Hero, affords a beautiful, boisterous sight of backlot ingenuity. And the third-act spirit of Errol Flynn’s swordplay springs to life thanks to the specificity of a set built as the pirate hideout for the evil Singh Brotherhood.

If only “The Phantom” were as confident in its countenance. The movie never decides whether to arch its eyebrows or maintain a steely glare. One problem is Wincer’s acceptable, but anonymous, journeyman direction rarely syncing with the more winking witticisms in a script by the late Jeffrey Boam — who, having written the superb “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” certainly knew his way around such stories. (The uniquely cheeky Joe Dante, who remains an executive producer, was once set to direct and would have been an undeniably more suitable choice.)

Most of all, Zane seems inflexibly incapable of sparking to any suggestion of silliness. (Release the Zane jokes!) Zane certainly has the abs of a hero, but he seems to have spent too much time guzzling wheatgrass and whaling on his pecs and not enough wallowing in the Phantom’s persona. Certainly nothing Zane does, or says, cultivates the sensation of superhuman fear with which hapless henchman speak of him.

To that point, it seems Boam’s tongue-in-cheek theme will be that this Phantom doesn’t particularly excel at the job, or even want it — a sort of forerunner to Seth Rogen’s take on “The Green Hornet” in which our hero stumbles into any success he enjoys and largely thanks to his cast of supporting characters. In addition to Hero the horse, Kit has a wolf named Devil and a sidekick named Guran, who admonishes those who dare smoke in the Phantom’s Skull Cave. Meanwhile, the ghost of Kit’s father (Patrick McGoohan) appears to bemoan and belabor Kit’s errors.

Kit is certainly never a step ahead of the bad guys. He’s good mostly at clinging to planes or jumping from them before they explode, and the first thing we see him do is screw up — letting one of three Skulls of Touganda fall to folks who, if they find the other two, will possess a weapon greater than any man could manufacture.

There is one nice moment when Kit stalls a foot chase to help a woman whose clutch purse he has inadvertently knocked from her hand, but that only illustrates that this particular purple-clad piece of wood is sturdy and a decent fella. There’s also no heat in either a rekindled romance with Kit’s ex-girlfriend Diana (Kristy Swanson) or the skimpy screen time afforded to Sala, a Pussy Galore-meets-Eve Teschmacher henchwoman played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in one of her earliest U.S. roles.

In lieu of do-gooders expressing an enthusiastic esprit de corps, you’d hope “The Phantom” might instead tinker with the era’s hot-button issues — like how the Phantom could bridge a gap between colonial occupation and the natives’ rights or pre-World War II paranoia. Perhaps it could indulge a bit of alternate history about whose hands, if not Nazi Germany’s, the Skulls could fall. Instead, plot machinations settle into a clockwork pattern of 20-minute mini-adventures, parceled out like a week’s worth of serials or strips.

Humor isn’t entirely squeezed to the margins, with bits involving Kit’s payment for New York City transportation and some gangsters’ handwringing over trading reliable gun crime for unknown variables of supernatural juju. Respectively playing a cabbie and a crook, veteran character actors John Capodice and David Proval elevate these scenes even as their dialogue feels like an approximation of the snappy patter you expect. There’s nothing longer here than could fit in a comic balloon.

And there’s also Treat Williams’ performance as Xander Drax, the dastard dredging up the Skulls of Touganda as his latest, greatest scheme after manipulating unions, stocks, public utilities and organized crime to his whims. Playing Drax like Gable with a lunatic edge, Williams is in on the joke no one else involved with “The Phantom” even knows is being told. There’s more pep, vim and verve in the pause Drax gives upon realizing the Skulls’ capabilities than anything else in the movie.

Considering its lack of personality in hindsight, perhaps “The Phantom” would have been better served betting the house on its old-school aesthetic. Let music swell on melodramatic waves. Break in with intrusive, giant-fonted supertitles. Place us under the care of a big-voiced narrator every 10 minutes or so. Cheesy? Sure, but bravely so, in a way that would have at least shouted an authoritative rebuke to summer competition and stood out as a bold outlier rather than a mostly blasé casualty.

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