Superhero Movie Month: "The Phantom" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Rating: PG
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: June 07, 1996
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Genre: Action / Adventure / Comedy

Blending action and comedy into a fun pulpy adventure, "The Phantom" is an exciting and somewhat campy superhero movie based on the serialized newspaper comic strip that began in 1936. Though it bears little resemblance to the slick big budget superhero blockbusters of today, a strong directorial presence and a solid crop of actors make it a worthwhile entry in the genre.

Based out of the fictional Southeast Asian nation of Bengalla, The Phantom is tasked with protecting ancient and powerful artifacts from pirates and venture capitalists alike. His tight purple suit and off-the-books relationship with law enforcement make him reminiscent of Batman. Interestingly, the first appearance of The Phantom actually predates Batman by nearly three years. Many of the things they have in common actually originated with The Phantom.

This makes for an interesting piece of comics trivia but not necessarily a good action movie. Fortunately, "The Phantom" succeeds on that front as well. This is due in no small part to the highly competent directing of Simon Wincer. Wincer was a go-to director for fast-paced family friendly fare in the 1990s. Some of his other credits include "Quigley Down Under" (1990) and "Free Willy" (1993).

Though unlikely to ever be praised for his unique personal vision, Wincer knows his way around an action scene. His shots are perfectly composed to hide the limitations of pre-CGI filmmaking. Much of the stunt work in "The Phantom" is impeccable, and when special effects are used, such as in the recreation of the skyline of 1930s New York City, they are well-integrated and seamless.

Also contributing to an overall pleasant viewing experience is the surprisingly talented cast of top-notch character actors. Billy Zane ratchets up the charm in the lead role, getting a lot of mileage out of his winning smile and slightly self-deprecating attitude. Treat Williams plays the memorably named villain Xander Drax; he is clearly having a great time with the material. His dapper scenery chewing is infectious fun, and he provides a lot of the movie's comedy with his winning line delivery.

Rounding out the gallery of villains is Catherine Zeta Jones as the fabulous and impeccably dressed leader of a band of female bandits, and James Remar as a kind of evil Indiana Jones. Remar, who is perhaps best known for his role as Ajax in the 1979 movie "The Warriors," deserves special mention for his gravelly voice, which is a great pleasure to listen to. The charismatic Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has a minor but memorable role as the leader of a brotherhood of evil pirates.

The plot of "The Phantom" is on the silly side, but that is a plus rather than a minus. It is difficult to get viewers to take a bodysuit-wearing hero with a faithful pet wolf seriously, so it is safer not to try. Shady businessman Drax seeks to unite three mythical skulls that can be used to raise an unstoppable army. The quest for the skulls takes his flunkies, played by Remar and Zeta Jones, from the jungles of Southeast Asia to New York City and then later to an uncharted island. The Phantom follows hot on their heels, trying to reclaim the skulls for the native people of Bengalla, who rescued him from a shipwreck when he was a child and raised him to be a protector of the jungle.

Herein is where the biggest flaw in "The Phantom" lies. For a movie set in Asia about a quest for Southeast Asian artifacts starring a character who was raised by the people of Southeast Asia, there are surprisingly few Southeast Asian actors. All of the major roles are played by Americans and Western Europeans, and there are only a couple of small speaking roles reserved for Asian actors. Part of this is an unfortunate product of the time "The Phantom" was originally written, but the lack of Asian representation looks a little incongruous to modern eyes. This does not negate the film's many good qualities, but it would be an oversight not to mention it.

Overall, "The Phantom" is an amusing and exciting film that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Solid performances by both major and minor characters make it quite entertaining. In addition, the film looks great even now, and the action scenes are memorable and full of quality stunt work. "The Phantom" represents an early era of superhero movies, in which things were not taken quite so seriously, but that is part of the reason it is so much fun.