Children of Bond - The Phantom

the phantom zane
The Phantom is a 1996 action/adventure film directed by Simon Wincer and was based on Lee Falk's famous comic strip of the same name. The Phantom, created in 1936, was in many ways the original superhero and a major influence on Batman and others. It took him a long time to get his own film and although it met with a modest reception it is probably a little more enjoyable than the reviews would suggest. While The Phantom blazed a trail for others to follow on the page as far as the silver screen goes his belated big screen bow unavoidably owes much to the Indiana Jones and James Bond films.
The legend of The Phantom in the film begins in 1536 when a small boy is washed ashore in the fictitious African country of Bengalla after a pirate attack on the ship he was on kills his father and everyone else onboard. The boy swears to dedicate his life to fighting evil, greed and villainy and when he has grown to adulthood becomes "The Phantom" - a masked crimefighter in a purple costume who operates from a hidden jungle "Skull Cave" and battles the evil Singh Brotherhood with his wolf "Devil" and white horse "Hero".
The Phantom is a role that is secretly passed down the generations with the son taking over from the father and then passing it on to his son and so on. This gives The Phantom a mythic, ghostly aura to scare the villains - who believe he is immortal and sometimes refer to him as "The Ghost Who Walks". The story here concerns the 21st Phantom Kit Walker (Billy Zane) in the 1930s attempting to stop nutty industrialist Xander Drax (Treat Williams) from getting his hands on the "Skulls of Touganda", three magical artifacts that if united together will unleash a great power and enable him to rule the world.
Drax is aided by air-pirate Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while The Phantom is helped by Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) - who has been investigating Drax for her newspaper publisher relative Dave (Bill Smitrovich) and is also an old flame of Kit Walker...
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This colourful picture is much in the vein of not just Indiana Jones but films like The Rocketeer and The Shadow with an enjoyable pulp atmosphere and plenty of cliffhanger stunt set-pieces. The prologue that explains the origin of The Phantom serves as an object lesson in how to convey backstory in a speedy and entertaining manner without taking up half of the film. Then we have some jungle capers over a precarious bridge and our first look at The Phantom in action.
The film sometimes doesn't seem to quite know how to end the action/stunt sequences but always has a likeable enthusiasm and respect for its source material that helps to negate some of the shortcomings. The Phantom himself is - like in the strip - given a purple suit that is absolutely ridiculous but very comic book come to life. Billy Zane, best known for playing baddies in films like Titanic and Dead Calm, is surprisingly well cast as The Phantom and (with the aid of a luxurious toupee) looks every inch the Clark Kentish square jawed superhero as Kit Walker. Zane plays The Phantom/Kit Walker in a very urbane and deadpan manner and is generally good.
The film makes nice use of Phang Nga Bay of Thailand's Phuket Island which doubles as The Phantom's adopted home of Bengalla and was of course also famously used in the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun. Although The Phantom looks quite expensive and has some wonderfully exotic locales a valid criticism is that it sometimes lacks energy and seems a little flat. It's never quite as exciting as it should be.
In a film that reminds you of everything from Batman to Indiana Jones there is also a Tarzan quality to The Phantom with our hero's jungle home and unique bond with animals. A sequence where his horse outruns an airplane is rather silly but I quite enjoyed the moment where The Phantom pacifies a lion while in a New York zoo. Like many superhero films though it is absolutely unbelievable that no other character seems to notice that Kit Walker is quite obviously The Phantom!
While Zane plays his role in a straight, if wry, fashion, Treat Williams hams it up as Xander Drax in old school Bond villain style and seems to be enjoying himself. "God is dead, and chaos rules the earth," declares Drax. "America is in financial ruin. Europe and Asia are on the brink of self-annihilation. Chaos reigns. But like I've always said, there is opportunity in chaos." He's not exactly Alan Rickman but he is more fun than the last batch of Bond villains we've been subjected to.
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The stirring score by David Newman and the period detail are plus points for the film - as is the presence of the late Patrick McGoohan as the ghost of Walker's father and the previous Phantom. The Phantom has some decent actors in supporting roles like James Remar of Dexter fame as one of Drax's goons. Kristy Swanson - the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer - as Diana is a tad feistier than your average Bond girl or damsel in distress and (a then unknown outside of British television) Catherine Zeta Jones is ok as Sala, a vampy henchwoman working for Drax who is astonished when The Phantom spurns her advances. "He could have had me but he picked her. That could only be love." The Phantom uses the old Bond blueprint of having two female leads and making one of them bad.
The Phantom is not Raiders of the Lost Ark and builds to a predictable finish but anyone with a soft-spot for period adventure capers and superhero films will find it perfectly watchable with some decent touches. The admirable desire to be faithful to the comic that inspired it is always likeable too. The film is unavoidably derivative of millions of previous superhero and adventure films and perhaps could have done with more energy during some of the action but it gets good marks for effort even if the final product is far from perfect.

- Jake

c 2015 Alternative 007

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