PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
Four hundred years ago, a young boy, the last survivor of a pirate attack commanded by the ruthless Kabai Sengh (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), is washed ashore on an island called Bengalla, where he swears to devote his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice and in adulthood 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 in a single, immortal figure and accordingly to nickname him “The Ghost Who Walks” and “The Man Who Never Dies”.
In 1938, Kit Walker (Billy Zane), the 21st Phantom, finds the man who killed his father, the mercenary Quill (James Remar), searching for one of the ‘Skulls of Touganda’, possession of which grants the owner a tremendous destructive power. The Phantom seizes Quill’s men and saves the native kidnapped as their guide; but Quill retrieves the Skull and returns to the United States of America. In New York City, Kit’s ex-girlfriend Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) is sent by her Uncle Dave (Bill Smitrovich) to Bengalla in order to investigate claims that businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams), Quill’s boss, is resorting to piracy. En route, Diana is captured by female “air-pirates” also obeying Drax, led by the femme fatale Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The Phantom, told of Diana’s kidnapping by Capitain Phillip Horton (Robert Coleby), rescues Diana and escapes to his headquarters, the ‘Skull Cave’, where Diana meets with Captain Horton and is returned to New York.
The Phantom then travels to New York in civilian guise to meet Diana. There, they locate the second Skull in a museum, but are captured by Drax and his men, who steal the second Skull and unite it with the first; thereupon to locate the third on a island on the Yellow Sea. Diana is taken there by Drax, Sala, and Quill, while Kit follows them as the Phantom.
On the island, Drax meets with the pirate Kabai Sengh, who possesses the third Skull; and both are attacked by the Phantom. Quill is killed at close quarters, and Kabai Sengh by falling into a pool of sharks. Diana, Sala, and the Phantom co-operate to defeat the subordinate villains; whereupon Drax unites the three Skulls and turns them against the Phantom, only to be destroyed when the Phantom uses the skull marked on his own ring to overcome the others. In parting from Diana thereafter, the Phantom reveals his secret and his double-identity to her, with implication that she will therefore become his bride; but she is conveyed to New York by Sala, who does not see him exposed.
Not all superheroes reside in the realm of comic books. Some come to us from comic strips. Such is the case with the star of The Phantom. If you’re like me, then you know little to nothing about this guy. Hell, if not for some random (cheap) comics that were given to me when I was little, I wouldn’t know anything about him at all.
What is this about?
We start out with the origin of the first Phantom, learning how he came to be a crime fighter and all that jazz. Then we find out that he passes down the mantle to his son and the legacy goes on and on. After this brief introduction into the origins, we get right into the thick of things and learn of a major plot point involving the skulls of Touganda, mystical skulls of immense, unmeasurable power. As with all superhero films, there has to be a girl, and we get one here in the form of the Phantom’s ex-girlfriend from college, who has been sent to Bengali by her father to learn more about these skulls and their disappearance. While down there, she meets the Phantom, unbeknownst to her that he is really her old flame, Kit Walker. As you can surmise, she eventually gets kidnapped and has to be saved, all while keeping the villainous Xander Drax and the Sengh Brotherhood away from the skulls. Will they succeed? Will the Phantom save the girl? What is the true significance of the skulls?
What did I like?
Origin. It has been said many times and will continue to be said…origins take away too much from superhero films. They dispense with all that in first 5 minutes here. I actually would have given it a pass here. Unlike Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the Hulk, The Phantom isn’t exactly a character everyone knows, so going into his origin would have been ok. That being said, the fact that they didn’t spend 3/4 of the film on his origin and went right into the story made this a much more satisfying experience.
Damsel in distress. In this year where the girls are actually saving the world more and more, it was a breath of fresh air to just have a damsel in distress type situation. Of course, this is set in the 30s, so that might also have had something to do with it.
Scenery. The breathtaking scenery of Skull Island is so beautiful that you almost want to watch it more than what is going with the film. Perhaps that is why they decided to use it as a montage of sorts while the credits rolled.
Action. The Phantom is very similar to Batman. He has no supernatural powers, but relies heavily on his natural abilities and the mythology around him. With a character like that, you can just about imagine that we’re going to be getting some one on one fights, and sure enough we did.
What didn’t work?
Ring. In a very early scene, we see the imprint left on the face of Quill. For those not familiar with the Phantom’s equipment, this was a random shot, but fact of the matter is, in the comics when you were hit with Phantom’s ring, it left a permanent imprint on you. This was never explored in the film, or even mention. There was just that one shot that really didn’t fit.
Zane. I have nothing against the guy or his performance. He actually is a very fine actor and did a great job. Very similar to Jon Hamm, he has that retro look to him. I can’t pinpoint exactly what is. However, while he may have been a good Kit Walker, as the Phantom, he didn’t quite pull it off. I think it was mainly because of the constant smiling. From what I know of the character, he isn’t exactly the type to be so happy-go-lucky. Ay least he kept his mask on when he needed to, though. If this was released today, not only would this be a dark, bloody film, but he’d be taking his mask off every two seconds, just like The Amazing Spider-Man.
Reception. Two of my favorite superhero films were released around the same time as this, and received the same little to no reaction, The Shadow and The Rocketeer. I can’t tell you why those films, as well as this one were so poorly received. Perhaps people just weren’t ready to accept them for anything more than fanboy cult flicks.
The Phantom is a fun ride from beginning to end. I won’t say it is the best superhero film of the 90s, but it is close. The action, sense of adventure, light tone, and hint of romance offer something for everyone. I highly recommend this one, so check it out!
4 out of 5 stars