I’m going to preface this article by saying, “Yes, a purple costume is stupid. Now, get over it.”
That’s right, today were are talking about The Phantom, a live action adaptation of Lee Faulk’s popular and long running comic strip character. The Phantom is a story about a young man in a long line of young men who has dedicated his life to fighting crime and piracy in all its forms, to the point that he has forsaken even his own identity. The character of the Phantom embodies all things old school, he has a secret hideout, he is a superb physical specimen, he carries guns but only uses them to disarm his foes, and he has no shortage of adventures. In truth, the Phantom is a lot like mixing Batman and Indiana Jones.
In the movie he is, hmm…to say ‘played’ is not adequate. In the movie he is brought to life, fully formed and idealized by Billy Zane. Zane was reportedly a huge fan of the character and actively campaigned for the role, going so far as to develop his body into top fighting form so as to be convincing. This dedication pays off in the film by having a main character that moves like a hero should, and makes me believe that he could actually face an army of thugs and win. His movements are precise and practiced, at one point he effortlessly blocks an incoming attack while fending off another foe. He emerges from an elevator into a front roll, grabbing his guns, and holstering them in one motion. He leaps from a motorcycle, flies through some trees, over a wall, and rolls to his feet calmly and ready for action. Again, he acts as a well crafted hero should. Even in mannerisms he is polite, but occasionally sarcastic; there is a dignified efficiency to all his actions.
I might even say that Zane could carry this show himself, but luckily he doesn’t have to. His primary companion in the film is played by Kristy Swanson who plays not only his love interest, but also a independent woman out to unseat the films villain. Swanson’s role is basically a plot motivator, she gets in trouble and once saved she becomes the catalyst for the action. It’s a thankless role of a sort, but she does well being likable and competent.
On the other side, the villain side, we get Treat Williams, James Remar, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Williams is a fun villain, being ruthless, ambitious, and very odd. He approaches villainy with a wide eyed sense of wonder, you almost feel happy for him, except that he’s evil. To be honest, I’d work for the guy, I’d feel guilty doing all the evil, but I’d work for him. Remar is his right hand, the character who is just above a mook and sent to do the dirty jobs. Much like Swanson it’s a thankless job that carries some necessary weight; luckily Remar is a good actor capable of immersing himself in the role instead of working on cruise control. As for Zeta-Jones, she performs admirably, having to contend with being the sex appeal for the movie.
I could go into the plot, but there is no real need. It concerns mystical skulls (the Phantom is all about skulls) that hold amazing power. It’s a backdrop, intended to set up action pieces and make the characters interact in interesting ways. The crux of this movie is upon these characters and watching them carry on in their adventures. It is pulp, and it relishes in this fact.
Unfortunately The Phantom did not do well in theatres, but it has found life on video and is viewed favorably in many circles today. This is a pleasing proposition because the movie does treat the source material seriously, and was very well put together. They had fine actors acting well, great action, and wonderful set pieces. I lump this movie in with The Rocketeer and The Shadow; Shadow being my personal favorite character, and Rocketeer being the best put together, but The Phantom has the best acting, and really feels like a pulp comic.
The Phantom gets 5/5.
Aside: As for the costume, Falk himself wanted Grey for the costume; the purple was necessitated by early coloring techniques, grey colors could not be consistently reproduced. Personally I feel it works, the Phantom is a jungle character, literally the king of the jungle, and bright colors are prominent there and the back-story has the costume being dyed from berries indigenous to that jungle. The movie is shot in such a fashion that all colors appear vibrant and crisp so it’s a testament to the film that the purple doesn’t really look out of place. I also feel the design crew felt the suit could look a bit odd so they went to the extra effort of interweaving intricate tribal designs into the fabric. What you get when watching this film is a well sculpted costume on a well sculpted man, it just happens to be purple.