Zen cowboy

The comic-book cliff-hanger The Phantom begins its purple reign

The Phantom opens with a scene that contains a device I refer to as "The Axiom of the Rickety Bridge." The rule is this: In any movie where there's a creaky, handmade bridge--usually strung together with what appear to be vines and scraps of discarded lumber, swinging precariously hundreds of feet above a rocky ravine--it makes no difference that this bridge has managed to survive countless ages amid the punishing elements. It will invariably choose the precise moment that the hero walks across it to come crashing down.

Mind you, there's nothing inherently wrong with this device. There's even a certain comfort derived from seeing it in this movie: You know right off the bat what the film's ethos will be--on what level it will communicate with its audience. It's an idealized vision of a world where realism and camp occupy the same space and don't crowd one another out of existence. The question is, how well does such a flashy, slick style transport you to that era? Do you buy into it, or reject it out of hand?

I have to confess, I'm an absolute sucker for the stylized art-deco elegance of the faux '30s in movies like The Phantom and 1994's The Shadow, movies set in their own unique realm--a comic-book reality where the nighttime streets are always glisteningly wet but it never rains, where the police chief dines on Dom Perignon and never gets socked with the bill, where beautiful socialites sleep luxuriantly on satin sheets and never wake up with bed-head. It's a refined, witty world, the kind where all the men are as sharp-tongued as Noel Coward, and all the women get away with being feisty and feminine, like Barbara Stanwyck in her prime. It's a world where the crooks get to say things like "Why yi oughtta..." and don't seem like ludicrous fools doing so.

The film is not as successful in achieving its goals as it hopes to be, but it's spunky and corny and knowing. It's the kind of entertainment which Hollywood is best at--the trashy, gorgeous kind, all empty calories and quick sugar fixes--cotton candy for the soul.

The character of Kit Walker, a.k.a. "the Phantom" (played here by Billy Zane), probably isn't as well-known to modern audiences as Dick Tracy, but he holds a particularly revered place in the pantheon of comic-book creations. He predates Superman by a year or two, and it's clear that cartoonist Lee Falk's protagonist was a necessary transitional character in the development of comics. The Phantom has no superpowers, and despite people's belief that he is immortal, he's quite human. With his sidearms and his horse, the Phantom is a hero who embodies the classic Western motifs: He's a do-gooder in the American tradition, made more mysterious--more modern--by his Secret Identity, his Enigmatic Isolation, his Foreboding Fortress. Zane wears a form-fitting mesh costume throughout most of the film, one without the armored rubber breastplate of Batman or metallic chassis of RoboCop. He's existential enough not to have to hide beneath the trappings of brooding schizophrenia. No revisionist psychologizing here; he's too happy to second-guess himself--he's a Zen cowboy.

There's something both admirable and a bit stuffy about the way the screenwriter, Jeffrey Boam, and the director, Simon Wincer, resist the temptation toward revisionism, which has become so popular in recent years. Their devotion to the Phantom's prosaic mysticism, to the sheer banality of his character, shows respect for the source material and perhaps too much confidence in the loyalty of his audience and the moviegoing population in general. (The Phantom comics are enormously popular in Australia, and Wincer is a native Australian.) The Phantom still lives in a skull cave in a remote area of the Bengalla Jungle; the jungle just doesn't strike me as the most convenient H.Q. for a worldwide fight against piracy and the sinister Sung Brotherhood, an "ancient order of evil." And the plot, a quest for three antique skulls that together release "a massive supernatural force," seems like a pale search for the lost ark of the covenant. Like the ark, the skulls prefigure atomic energy and, with the '30s setting, add both weight and kitschiness to the theme of a power that, left uncontrolled, could destroy mankind.

But because The Phantom doesn't aim to be taken too seriously, and because the Phantom character is just obscure enough not to carry with it the baggage of too many preconceived notions, the film works as a cheeky send-up of the old Republic serials my dad enjoyed. In the modern serial, lots of slow-motion sequences serve as surrogates for cliff-hanger endings. Besides the campiness, there are a few other touches to keep your interest, including some bizarre, offhanded comic references to things like necrophilia (expressed by a femme fatale who wants possession of the Phantom's body after he dies) and homosexuality (when Kit tells his father that he's fallen for a girl, his dad's sigh of relief quakes the scene).

The performances by Kristy Swanson as the adverturesome love interest, and Treat Williams--carnival-barking his way through a hammy characterization--don't leave much of an impression, but Billy Zane acquits himself by never making fun of his character. That's quite a feat, considering he spends most of the movie looking like a big purple raccoon--The Artist Formerly Known As Kit Walker. He seems to know that if the audience feels he doesn't believe in the Phantom--that there's something humiliating about running around the jungle in lavender tights--then they'll feel cheapened. It would be a shame if that happened, and this much silly fun went to waste.

The Phantom. Paramount. Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams. Written by Jeffrey Boam. Directed by Simon Wincer. Now showing.

 
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