Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Shadow

   The middle part of a 90's cinematic trilogy of 40's pulp comic book heroes, preceded by The Rocketeer and succeeded by The Phantom, The Shadow is just as much fun as either- and easily as stylish. I don't think anyone in the 90's was particularly clamoring for this specific brand of heroism, because sadly, all three movies under-performed at the box office, dooming all the plans that were made for extravagant franchises. Maybe it's just as well- because despite how much fun they are, all three were slightly off the mark, and once again... The Shadow is no exception.

   He may not have purple tights, or a rocket pack, but he can confound the minds of men! Which is pulp-speak for turning invisible and some limited range of mind control. The Shadow plays like a glorious mish-mash of Batman and Dick Tracy, with all the gothic cityscapes, gadgets, lairs, and secret passages that the filmmakers could muster. It's all a blast, and tongue-in-cheek just enough to be self aware. The premise is silly, and requires a full text crawl after the opening scene just to tell us exactly who's who and how The Shadow actually got his powers. It's all pulp-speak, and oozing with Mystery!!! But, what do you want? This stuff is great fun.

   Alec Baldwin does really well when the script calls for heroics, but when he's not socking baddies or looking dramatic, he just seems like Alec Baldwin. Compare this to how Michael Keaton absolutely absorbs the concept of Bruce Wayne and you'll find Baldwin kind of lacking- like a low rent version of Wayne. In some ways, this is kind of perfect. The Shadow came into a post-Batman (1989) cinematic landscape, where the concept of a Billionaire Playboy was already aced. So Baldwin's performance as The Shadow and his alter-ego, Lamont Cranston is suitably stock and vaguely generic. Somehow, that plays rather well in this movie.

   It's all a hair's breadth away from parody, but comfortably settles into homage instead. And what an homage it is, not just to comic books or pulp heroes, but to the whole damn genre! The villain is a descendant of Genghis Khan, because aren't they all? Tim Curry shows up as a weasely henchman, and Ian McKellen graces the movie with his performance as a colorblind scientist. Also showing up is Peter Boyle as Cranston's stalwart cabbie sidekick, and Penelope Ann Miller as the requisite love interest, Margot Lane, who just happens to be psychic! Hot damn!

   Anything goes in a movie with vanishing buildings, runaway spherical atomic bombs, a sentient knife, Mongolian warriors strolling through the streets of New York city- drawing virtually no attention whatsoever, secret codes, signal rings, and of course- Alec Baldwin in inexplicable facial prosthetics. See, whenever Cranston 'transforms' into The Shadow, he actually undergoes a literal transformation. His face changes- but his trademark red scarf covers most of it anyways so I fail to see the point. It's never really explained why his face needs to change when he's invisible 80% of the time, and then has his face covered the other 20%.

   But, who cares? The action scenes are surprisingly well done- inventive, creative, and the special effects are still pretty cool! The movie is buzzing with energy; the set pieces are a blast and I felt like I was watching a comic book come to life. It may ultimately just be an 'okay' movie, but The Shadow is made of the stuff that I loved as a kid, and frankly- still do. It has that perfect combination of elements to be an easy Friday night rental. To complete my personal nostalgia trip though, I'd need to rent it on VHS from a local Blockbuster Video. However, I'll settle for a big bowl of popcorn and a ginger ale instead.

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