Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Phantom (1996)

Guns in movies are rarely treated properly, both in how they function and in how they are used.  We all know the old tropes.  They quite often have a seemingly limitless supply of ammunition, only running out as a plot convenience in order to throw a curveball at the shooter.  When people do run out of bullets, they whip their weapon (not a euphemism) at their enemy, as if this will in any way be effective, and, of course, discounting that they’ll ever get more bullets to reload.  After killing an enemy who also has guns, characters will neither take those guns for future use nor check the body for ammunition they can use.  Characters who go underwater while having a gun on their person emerge from the water and immediately start flawlessly shooting, as if the water wouldn’t affect the bullets or the mechanism at all (the exception to this that stands out in my mind is the fantastic sequence in the Coen BrosNo Country for Old Men).  By turns, audiences forgive, deride, and cherish these instances, and this is usually based on context.  In a film like Taxi Driver, the realism of the filmic world demands that the weapons behave in a verisimilitudinous fashion.  Conversely, in something like Rambo: First Blood Part 2, the expectation is that Rambo would never run out of bullets, because he is a fantasy character in a fantasy world (he is, after all, re-fighting and winning the Vietnam War for all Americans).  

But even in far-fetched circumstances, there are some utilizations of firearms that both dumbfound and generate incredulity.  Not to be too much the doryphore, but such an instance occurs in Simon Wincer’s The Phantom.  Chasing after the badguys, the Phantom (Billy Zane) uses his twin AMT Hardballer .45s to slide down an elevator cable.  Never mind the physics of the descent.  Between the heat generated on the guns and the friction from the cables, those firearms would be better suited for paperweights than weapons from there on out (one instance where throwing guns at an enemy would actually make sense).  It’s funny that this stood out to me, especially considering that the film is a complete flight of fancy in every way, though I can say that it didn’t ruin the experience at all.  But stand out it did.

The Phantom guards the Bengale Jungle from all intruders, sworn to fight greed and cruelty in all their forms.  He becomes entwined in the fiendish plot of rich villain Xander Drax (Treat Williams) to combine and harness the power of three mystic skulls (one gold, one silver, one jade) for his own villainous ends.  The upshot is that he also reconnects with college sweetheart and adventurer Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson).  Much globetrotting and thrills ensue.

The Phantom is a comic strip character created in 1936 by Lee Falk and distributed by King Features Syndicate.  While the strip is still being produced and printed today (obviously not by Falk, who passed away in 1999), his characters have also appeared in comic books, prose books, animated series, and live-action serials, and that’s to say nothing of the merchandising that comes with a property of this magnitude.  Falk was quoted as saying, “To me, The Phantom and Mandrake [the Magician] are very real – much more than the people walking around whom I don’t see very much.”  This sums up the key to making stories about characters like this (in fact, characters in any genre) work well.  The creators have to believe in them and the world they inhabit.  When they don’t, the result tends to be self-consciously hollow, fetishizing the heightened aspects rather than dealing with these realities as a whole.  As a sidebar, this is why I think a great many of the films which are done in a “retro” fashion (as well as the slew of recent genre spoof movies) simply don’t work; the filmmakers are so busy winking at the audience with the superficial elements rather than crafting a solid film with compelling characters and narratives.  Back to the point, Wincer’s film works for me because it treats almost everything in it with the same perspective.  The action works just as well as the humor does (I realize that co-executive producer and proposed director Joe Dante said that the film was intended, first and foremost, to be comical but was played “disastrously” straight, an opinion with which I have to say I disagree).  It’s light throughout, and if anything, the film owes tons to Steven Spielberg not only in its visual style but also in its tone, which is very reminiscent of his Indiana Jones series (ironic in that his and George Lucas’ franchise was influenced at least partially by strips like The Phantom, but not entirely surprising, since Wincer directed several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam also penned the script for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).     

One facet of the movie which stands out is its conflict between technology/civilization and mysticism/primitivity.  Clearly, the jungle that the Phantom inhabits is a wild place, and the Phantom himself is looked upon as a quasi-demigod.  The natives in the area believe him to be immortal, referring to him as “The Ghost Who Walks,” but this is a legend created to maintain order (the mantle of Phantom is a legacy passed down from fathers to sons [I believe Kit Walker, the Phantom of this story, is the 21st in the line, though I could be wrong about that]).  The Phantom does not impose his will on those who look up to him.  He simply fights in their name in order for them to continue to keep their freedoms (something we all wish were more commonplace).  Diana connects the two worlds directly (though Kit can exist in both as indicated by his trip to New York City, his true place is in the primal forest).  She comes from a high society family, but she is an adventurer at heart, and while she quite prefers the latter to the former, she can handle both well.  In fact, when we are introduced to her, she has just returned from the Yukon where she contracted malaria, and she leaps at the opportunity to go into the jungle at her newspaperman Uncle Dave’s (Bill Smitrovich) mention.  Conversely, Drax is the force of corporate greed.  His world is ensconced in concrete, steel, and glass, and he kills people at a whim right on his own property because the lawmakers/peacekeepers in this modern society are thoroughly corrupt and in his pocket.  His intent is to use the ancient skulls (a form of technology in the guise of magic, if we take Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” as law) as weapons, the implication being that innocent people would be the targets (as they are always the collateral damage of warfare, which is how Drax wants to use the artifacts), and thus being a force of subjugation.  The Phantom is the antithesis of everything Drax is as a character (with the exception of wealth, although Kit’s fortune comes from precious stones which he treats like baubles), and it is with this quality that he defeats him (still, truth be told, the Phantom also has a form of primitive technology akin to the skulls which aid him in this, and he does use firearms, so in this way, he is a synthesis between civilized and primitive, a trait many pulp heroes share).

The Phantom is an enjoyable, airy action/adventure film.  The cinematography by David Burr is gorgeous, and the mobile camerawork is dynamic and fluid.  The stuntwork and effects are impressive as all get out.  The action itself is filled with tension and follows the structure of series like Indiana Jones and James Bond, where it rises and falls, and most importantly, escalates.  It’s not enough for the Phantom to be stuck in a truck on a rickety rope bridge.  No, he is stuck in a truck on a rickety rope bridge with an innocent kid tied up in the back, the ropes breaking, a several hundred foot fall beneath, and only one hand free to do anything.  This is after a chase through the jungle, some fisticuffs, and more.  This is not the Batman series (1989 – 1997), though it was clearly produced because of that franchise, but they share certain flavors.  That said, this film does distinguish itself enough from the Warner Bros films and satisfies enough to be its own thing and worth seeing for a good time.

MVT:  The production values, its design, cinematography, locations, and so on are grand, especially considering its $45 million budget (which unfortunately wasn’t even recouped from its theatrical release).

Make or Break:  The initial action set piece sets the bar in all respects for the film, and the ones that proceed from it match it quite nicely in quality.

Score:  7/10         

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