Twitter Plot Summary: The Shadow has to stop a descendant of Genghis Khan from conquering the world.
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Key Cast: Alec Baldwin, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, James Hong, Penelope Ann Miller.
Five Point Summary:
1. A knife with a face, now that’s new.
2. The Shadow’s fake nose is amusing.
3. Khan knows what a gun is? Well he can read minds. I’ll allow it.
4. Khan steals a few tricks from Thunderbird’s The Hood. Twice.
5. There’s a lot of cackling, don’t get me wrong though, I like it.
Looking a lot like Robinson Crusoe, albeit one washed up in the tongs of China rather than on a deserted island, Alec Baldwin is Lamont Cranston, a rather unpleasant chap who is reformed by a wizened man child. Yet another pulp idol brought to life on the cinema screen, The Shadow is a crime fighting vigilante with psychic powers, who’s adventures were churned out by Walter Gibson during the Depression era. As is often the case with these pulp idols, The Shadow’s exploits were never high fiction – Gibson is reputed to have written over 1.5 million words a year at his peak, amongst which are almost 300 Shadow novels – and this is borne out within the story chosen for this movie. A descendant of Genghis Khan wants to set off an atomic bomb and conquer the world. Can you get more pulp sci-fi than that?
In what is clearly a budgetary and superfluous narrative decision, Cranston’s training takes place in a text crawl. Yeah, clever storytelling that. Once that’s out of the way we’re right into the story as Cranston starts tormenting the gangsters of New York City as The Shadow whilst maintaining his public personas as a stereotypical playboy billionaire. As storytelling methods go it’s not a particularly good one. Whilst the plot itself moves along at an even pace and doesn’t miss out anything of importance, it also doesn’t allow much time for the characters to develop. Even Cranston has little backstory. He’s a tortured soul and was once a nasty guy, but that’s about the length of it. In its favour, other than the opening text crawl we’re not at the hands of Captain Exposition, so if your biggest fear is characters telling you their story rather than showing it, you can sleep easy.
It’s established early on that not those who are appropriately tuned can influence those with weaker minds (described as the ability to”cloud their minds”), and we get examples of both good and bad uses of the trick. You know, just in case you weren’t sure which of the characters is the good guy and which is the bad guy. This trick falls apart when Cranston meets Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who fulfils the role of obligatory love interest. Her mind is resistant to the clouding techniques used by Khan and The Shadow, and even has the ability to read minds. Yet in spite of this, she also gets no real opportunity to develop the character and arguably is on par with Peter Boyle’s cab driver in terms of characterisation.
Baldwin camps it up something rotten as The Shadow, toning it down significantly when playing his alter ego Lamont Cranston. He’s like an even blander version of Bruce Wayne. The tone shifts all over the place, not quite being the slightly camp bundle of fun it had the potential to be, nor is it a serious comic book movie along the lines of Nolan’s Batman films. By playing things a little too close to the serious end of the spectrum, it uncomfortably bridges the gap between the 1980 Flash Gordon movie and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. As you might imagine, that juxtaposition doesn’t really work, but a film about The Shadow using modern “serious” comic book movies as a template would be very, very good if done correctly.
Ian McKellen and Tim Curry, as a scientist and his crazy assistant, share screen time and whilst brief it’s rather good indeed, even if they are both sporting some terrible American accents. Tim Curry in particular seems to switch between accents after every other word. Neither has much to do either, which is a disappointment. John Lone as Khan matches Baldwin for levels of camp excess, but as a villain he’s really quite bad. I don’t mean that in a “he’s a nasty piece of work” way either, other than his OTT persona he’s otherwise a really bland character.
Russell Mulcahy has always had an interesting style to his direction – lots of swooping cameras and split focus that keep things moving along. Despite the odd directorial flourish, stylistically the film suffers from the same issues that plague the majority of 90s fantasy/sci-fi flicks in that the CGI and green screen stuff looks a little iffy by today’s standards. Thankfully this is balanced by some rather tasty set design and the 1930s setting really comes to life. Alongside Dark City and Dick Tracy released a few years either side of this, the Art Deco stylings are the core focus, elevating an average film to a slightly better than average film. I also enjoyed my regular game of “spot the actor” from other, bigger projects, although I haven’t mentioned this game in any reviews to date (except Commando) – I’ll do something about that. Ethan Phillips, the chap who played Neelix in Star Trek Voyager, shows up as a security guard – ironically this film’s equivalent to a red shirt. He gets a couple of lines of dialogue and then he’s outta there. Rule number one: never leave a security guard alone with a big and mysterious silver coffin. Box. Thing.
Whilst there was potential and on the whole it looks fantastic, The Shadow is a missed opportunity. It’s a shame, it could have easily become a new franchise and it’s a pity that the studio didn’t push ahead with a sequel. If you’re desperate for more Shadow though, go and get some of Gibson’s original source material, that should keep you going for a while.
Favourite scene: Alec Baldwin sticking his hand under his skin and into his face… and then ripping it off!
Quote: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”
Silly Moment: A guy dressed in full Mongol battle attire walks down a street in New York and nobody bats an eyelid. Okay so there’s a Chinese market on, but even he stands out like a sore thumb.