Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Phantom [dir. Simon Wincer]

Comic book movies more than any other genre are enjoyable or not predominantly on how much you're attached to the original source. The Phantom movie adaptation is a striking example of this. During my childhood I was a huge fan of the Phantom comics as released on Indrajal, and I still try to get the stories that I consider distinctive enough when I see them, so my opinion of this movie is definitely colored by my enjoyment of its relation to the source comic.

The storyline is quite hokey. In 1938 the 21st Phantom must battle a lawless magnate called Xander Drax who wishes to acquire 3 magical skulls whose combination will release an energy more powerful than anything else and enable him to control the world. Yada.

Quite a few things have been done right here. The production design is very handsome, be it the depiction of the Phantom's jungle realm - the Skull Cave, treasure room, ancestral crypt, the phantom chronicles etc. - or late 1930's art deco New York. The narrative moves at a zippy pace and the writers have rightly analyzed that the Phantom is a macho wise-cracking ass-kicking action hero who doesn't spend time moping over his dead ancestors or over his love Diana. Some of the action set-pieces, like the one where the Phantom and Diana are escaping from the villains in a small plane and do a leap onto the back of the Phantom's horse Hero are terrific. Billy Zane carries the Phantom mantle with charm, effacing to a great extent the essential goofiness of the purple costume. Unlike the alter-ego of many other costumed heroes he's also equally interesting as Kit Walker.

So what are the disappointments?

The plot. The Phantom's world in its limited scope has been distinctive. His villains are pirates, poachers, despotic rulers of tiny neighboring nations. Bringing him to New York just a third into the film and having him combat a generic world domination scheme takes away from the uniqueness of the franchise

One of the quibbles that those wanting the most faithful sort of adaptation of the Phantom franchise will have is that the film does not feature any BLACKS. The tribes surrounding the Phantom seem like they're from Hawaii or south America, as does his retainer Guran (dressed here in a Nehru jacket and turban). 1938 New York too seems totally free of blacks, even as serfs. Probably the makers chickened out from depicting blacks as they were portrayed in the Phantom strips.

The perceived need to have emancipated women also hurts the movie's legend. Sure, Diana has always been a tough cookie but if she can also wipe out guys with single punches, what is special about the Phantom and all his hardcore physical conditioning?

The villain Xander Drax is a huge disappointment. Sure he has a great name but he's played by an actor with a reedy voice who inspires no chill even when he's doing questionable things like having librarians eye-stabbed by spring-loaded knives or lobbing javelins into the backs of disagreeable colleagues.

The film seems to have had a curious budgeting. The sets and props are handsome and some of the action is painstakingly choreographed but the post-production budget seems to have been nothing because all the visual effects have a very low-quality to them, frequently worse than even some of the more recent Indian movies incorporating SFX. The climactic showdown in the lair of the Singh brotherhood also has an underwhelming feel to it. I imagine the original vision was to have a huge pirate warren but the budget constraints reduce the Singh stronghold to little more than a single mid-sized room set and a clash with around a dozen pirates at most.

All this nit-picking may seem that the movie has more bad points than good. But if you keep an open mind and fill in the gaps that the lack of budget creates you have still a fairly enjoyable outing and possibly the best Phantom adaptation given that there is no scope for one in the future.

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