Fri
Nov 18 2016 4:00pm

Passionate About Pulp: Revisiting The Phantom (1996)

THE SUBGENRE: Comic adaptation/supernatural adventure.
THE HERO: Kit Walker, aka jungle hero The Phantom.
THE VILLAIN: Megalomaniac businessman Xander Drax.
THE SETTING: 1939 NYC and the jungles of the fictional country “Bengalla.”

Twenty generations ago, a young cabin boy witnessed the slaughter of his ship's entire crew—including his father—by merciless pirates known as the Singh Brotherhood. 

Taken in by a native tribe, the boy vowed vengeance and assumed the crime-fighting mantle of The Phantom, a title and mission that are passed down from father to son until “piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice” are finally defeated. 

Due to this unbroken chain of similarly-uniformed heroes, folks begin to believe the Phantom is immortal and call him “The Ghost Who Walks.” In actuality, the Phantom has no magical powers; he's just an awesome fighter, great with guns, and has an awesome ring and a pet wolf called Devil.

That's still pretty sweet in terms of superhero accoutrements. I want a pet wolf called Devil. 

Anyway, fast-forward about four hundred years, and the 21st Phantom, Kit Walker (Billy Zane), is protecting his jungle home of Bengalla when he comes across some grave robbers making off with a fabled Skull of Touganda. 

Like all good mystical artifacts, the Skulls of Touganda bestow great power on whoever owns them; though the owner does have to possesses all three of the skulls to make any magical mojo happen. When one of the henchmen, Quill (awesome character actor James Remar), escapes with the Skull, Kit's somewhat perturbed and begins to worry about the other two.

Meanwhile, back in New York, feisty lady adventurer Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) meets with her uncle, the owner of the World Tribune newspaper. Seems dear ol' Unc has been investigating an unscrupulous businessman, the outrageously named Xander Drax (Treat Williams). Uncle Palmer decides the best way to get the real dirt on Drax is to send his badass niece to Bengalla on the trail of a mysterious spiderweb symbol.

Of course, Drax finds out about all of this and sends some cronies to stop Diana, namely femme fatale sky-pirate Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Diana gets kidnapped and rescued by the Phantom in short order, and the predictable sparks between the butt-kicking lady and the purple-suited hero start to fly.

(It helps that Diana and Kit were actually college sweethearts; their relationship was thwarted when Kit's dad—the previous Phantom—was abruptly murdered and the prodigal son had to return home to take over the family biz.)

Everyone ends up back in NYC for a bit before flying off to a hidden volcano fortress—because of course this story had to have a hidden volcano fortress. 

A fabulous love-triangle-of-sorts kindles between Kit, Diana, and Sala, which is fabulous because Sala seems just as interested in Diana (if not more!) as she is in the Phantom. 

There's a clash with the pirates of the Singh Brotherhood. 

Someone gets eaten by sharks. 

Another guy gets daggers to the eyes courtesy of a booby-trapped microscope.

Oh, and Kit's Ghost Dad (Patrick McGoohan) pops up periodically to complain that Kit hasn't married a hot girl and given him grandchildren yet.

Talk about wacky hijinks!

Originally a newspaper comic created by Lee Falk and quite popular in the 1930's and 40's, The Phantom was a box-office bomb when it hit theaters in 1996. Intended to be the first in a trilogy, the poor earnings made the studio immediately cancel the planned sequels.

Which is unfortunate, because—hear me out—it's actually a fun film. 

I'm not about to claim that it's a brilliant movie, or exceedingly well-made, or features astounding performances. Highbrow cinema this ain't.

What it is is a goofy comic book adaptation that entertains from start to finish. It's got the same wacky adventure shenanigans you'll find in Indiana Jones and The Mummy, what with its mystical treasures, prophecies, and pirates/looters.

Like The Mummy, it features dramatic foreign locations so frequently used in pulp stories: the aforementioned volcano fortress lair of the pirates as well as the jungles and beaches of Bengalla—a country that might be in Africa, judging by the animals shown, but might also be in India, judging by the men manning the Jungle Patrol. It's all a little confusing, to be honest. (Also, yeah, it's more than a little squiffy that the protector of this jungle paradise is a white guy; I acknowledge that's super unfortunate.)

There are a number of chases, both in cars and on horseback. Derring-do on a rickety rope bridge. Sky pirates who hold up a seaplane. Several explosions. Skulls that shoot lasers. The hero shimmies up a ship's mooring cable to save his gal—and did I mention he has a pet wolf named Devil

Basically all of the action ingredients necessary for a really exciting pulp adventure.

“Your friend” Billy Zane may have become something of a joke in recent years—largely thanks to that amazing moment in Zoolander—but he's an able action hero in this and surprisingly hunky despite the skintight purple body suit. The guy pumped iron for a solid year and a half before filming began; he didn't even need the specially padded suit they had originally designed.

I've always thought Kristy Swanson has had an unfair amount of mockery thrown her way over the years; this is the original Buffy we're talking about! Her Diana Palmer is amazing and easily the best thing she's done to date. Diana is courageous and capable, speaks her mind even when a gun's in her face, and sucker punches a whole lot of people. All while looking fabulous, might I add, in amazing boots, great hats, and perfect curls. 

Then there's Catherine Zeta-Jones's Sala. Oh my God, do I love Sala. She's set up to be the standard evil femme fatale to contrast Diana's hearty good girl, a malicious snarker and seductress who loves to gloat and threaten—and then they completely 180 her motivations and allegiances by the story's climax! 

She goes from pistol whipping Diana in their first meeting to blatantly flirting with Diana to kicking pirate ass when one of the guys threatens Diana. Simply wonderful. 

Of course, nowhere in the text do they explicitly spell out that Sala is a lesbian or bisexual—this is a silly adventure film made in 1996, after all—but given her smoldering chemistry with Swanson and her arch retort of “all my pilots are women,” let's just say the context clues are there.

On a petty, shallow note: has Zeta-Jones ever been sexier than as Sala? I put it to you that she has not. The lady was made for 1930's fashion, from the slinky red number and fabulous hat she wears in NYC to the black pants and pilot's jacket she wears the rest of the film. Slap a pair of aviation goggles on a gal who really rocks red lipstick and you've got a winning combination.

If this movie has a failing flaw, it's probably Treat Williams as baddie Drax. Williams simply doesn't have the presence required of a truly great villain; he's never threatening and comes across more as a slimy weasel than anything remotely evil. His climactic clash with Kit is disappointingly anticlimactic, largely because there's no emotional weight behind it. 

In fact, the final fight between the Phantom and Quill—the henchman who killed Ghost Dad and stole his fancy superhero belt—is way more interesting because there's the whole “you killed my father, prepare to die” sentiment to make it meaningful. If Remar, an actor who has far more practice at playing villains, had been the lead baddie instead, the movie would have been a lot more satisfying.

To be fair to Williams, he does get to have one truly great moment. When a mob boss tries to welch on their deal, Drax promptly picks up a spear on display in his office and throws it at the guy, skewering him to the wall. After complaining about pulling a muscle in his shoulder, Drax yanks the spear free and fusses over the mark left in the wood paneling. It's a great beat, and it makes you wish there had been more like it.

The Phantom may not have the same level of polish as the Indiana Jones series, nor as great a cast as The Mummy, but it's still a lot of fun. The crew did a wonderful job bringing the 1930's to life with the sets and fashions, and there's a plethora of nods to the source comics: the Singh Brotherhood, the Sky Band of air pirates Sala leads, the Phantom's uniform, the Jungle Patrol, and loyal manservant Guran (Radmar Agana Jao)—the Alfred to Kit's Bruce Wayne. 

Actually, The Phantom has a similar vibe to the West era of Batman. There's definitely an air of “Holy Bat Logic, Batman!” with the plot and characters, and both heroes are normal (if staggeringly wealthy) dudes who decided to don funny costumes to fight crime and avenge murdered parents. 

It's a rousing film that never takes itself too seriously—so long as you don't go into it expecting a comic book film on par with The Dark Knight and can enjoy Batman: The Movie instead, you won't regret the time spent in Bengalla.

See also: Passionate About Pulp: Revisiting Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

 

Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.
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1 comment
Lloyd Cooke
1. Lloyd
What does this have to do with pulp? Phantom was a comic strip superhero and most pulps were Westerns.
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