What do you expect from a movie based on an old radio serial? From yet
another cartoon movie? Nothing. You expect another bore like Batman,
another conglomeration of noise and stupidity like Darkman, or another
silly abomination like The Crow.
What little story exists in The Shadow is really lubricious and not
particularly clear. In a nutshell: The Shadow was apparently some kind
of Tibetan warrior who killed people every second and loved it. He gets
abducted by some monk-guy who saves his soul, shows him the light and
teaches him the power of telepathy, among other things (The Shadow's
powers are never made clear or explained, which is a major drawback in
some scenes). Now he's fighting crime in old NY (his operation is so
haphazard you can't believe this guy could find a criminal in jail) and
who should come along, but the last remaining descendant of Ghengis Kahn,
complete with Mongol warriors (where they come from is anybody's guess).
Are you still with me? Sounds like crap, right?
Well, for the first fifteen minutes it looks as if The Shadow will be
just that. In fact, it looks like it might be worse--a kind of
combination of Bill & Ted and Big Trouble in Little China. But then
something happens. We are transported from the opium fields of Tibet
(where the film senselessly begins) to The Big Apple circa 1936 and the
movie gets its bearings, gathers its sense of humor, and really struts
its sense of style.
This is, to say the least, very surprising. The director, Russell
Mulcahy, is a hack. His last film was the Kim Bassinger vehicle The Real
McCoy. Yeesh. His best work to date was the Duran Duran video "Rio" and
his first flick, Highlander. Highlander was very flashy, enjoyable
nonsense and The Shadow works on the same level except it's even
prettier. He's still a hack, but with The Shadow, he's a hack with a
lot of flamboyance and he's obviously studied all the other "comic book"
films quite diligently to weed out what doesn't work.
Mulcahy is aided considerably by many factors, not the least of which
is the cast. John Lone is good as Kahn and this villain gets his in a
very satisfying way. Jonathan Winters has never been used better for
comic effect and Mulcahy keeps him on a tight leash to prevent him from
being overbearing. Well done. Peter Boyle is amusing as the Shadow's
cab driver and Tim Curry is very funny as a nuclear physicist ("You never
thought I'd be friends with a conqueror, did ya?"). Penelope Anne Miller
is adequate as the moll and Alec Baldwin proves again, as he did in Glenn
Gary Glenn Ross, that he's not horrible all the time and can deliver a
line with the right sense of irony.
While the script is bad on story and clarity, it does provide some gems
in the dialogue department.
Kahn: "I will succeed"
Shadow: "You know, of course, I going to stop you."
Kahn: "You Americans, you're all so arrogant. You think this decadent,
ill-informed society you've made is the high point of civilization..."
Shadow: "Hey! You're talking about the U S of A now."
Kahn and the Shadow have several good exchanges. Any movie in which
Alec Baldwin says "I'm psychically well-endowed" can't be all bad.
However, the true strength of the film is its production design and its
visual effects. It took four different companies and 500 people to
achieve the visual effects in the film and ILM was not among them. ILM
has a few films left this summer (read: True Lies) to wow us, but they
face some stiff competition from Fantasy II film effects which really
makes The Shadow spectacular.
There are several panoramic shots throughout the film of 1936 New York--
from the air, from the vantage point of a skyscraper, from the ground, at
night and most impressively, during the day. They are all flawless,
complete with air traffic that consist of biplanes, vintage automobiles
in the street and historically accurate architecture (the Empire State
Building and the Chrysler building top the skyline, the Flat Iron
Building and the Ansonia Hotel are also visible in many shots. I believe
you even see the hippodrome). There is an effects sequence in the film
that virtually assures it of an Oscar in which we follow a message
container through the Shadow's elaborate matrix of pneumatic tubes
covering the city. It starts out in an office building and flies outside
along the edges of buildings, through building foundations, etc.,
eventually finding its way to, what we assume, is the Shadow's
headquarters. (As we said, clarity is not the strong point of the film.)
The camera follows it along like a rollercoaster above NY at dizzying
heights. This one shot accomplishes the flair that Batman tried to
achieve with its city scapes and the awe that The Crow went for with its
camera acrobatics and beats them both by miles. Its almost worth seeing
just for this alone.
If anyone knows anything more about Fantasy II Film effects, I'd love to
hear about them. They also did some work way back when on The Abyss. It
seems to me like they're quite a company and I'm just curious about the
creative talent behind it.