Junkfood Cinema: The Phantom

By  · Published on April 2nd, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; who knew reading could be hazardous to your health? Take that elementary school librarians! In a ceaseless assault on I.Q.’s across the nation, every week I bring you samplings from the bad film elite and break down exactly where they failed to meet traditional standards of cinema quality. However, in an effort to profess my undying love of schlock, I will also dissect exactly what makes these bad films so damn watchable. What’s that? You say you like to eat while you watch movies? Well, I’m not here to judge. To wit, I will offer up a tasty junkfood pairing to each film…just in time for beach season!

Today’s film is the 1996 “super”hero flick The Phantom. The basic premise is that a hero is born of an ancient Bengali legend; known as The Phantom or The Ghost Who Walks. He is said to have protected the jungle of piracy and evil for 400 years and though many have claimed to have killed him, he remains the vigilante guardian of the jungle. The film takes place in 1939 as New York millionaire, and incidentally power-hungry madman, Xander Drax is in search of an ancient power directly related to The Phantom’s origin. If he manages to locate the three lost skulls of Tugonda, he will wield a power 10,000 times greater than any weapon or high explosive known to man. It is up to the intrepid Phantom to stop Drax before he conquers the world, or inadvertently destroys it in the process.

What Makes It Bad?

There is a veritable treasure chest full of problems with The Phantom, but as I don’t want to be writing this article through next week, I will grill only the choicest cuts of crap. First and foremost, I don’t understand the logistics of this superhero. He is a man dedicated to fighting evil in all its forms, a noble occupation, but the problem is that his lair is in a remote jungle thousands of miles from anything even remotely evil. He spends most of his day sitting on a massive stone thrown with his wolf, his horse, and his houseboy. So essentially, had Drax’s men not entered the jungle looking for the first skull, The Phantom would have grown old and died sitting on that thrown. The Phantom is effectively the most inefficient superhero ever conceived; surely wrongdoers will just come to him.

Let me assure you, as much as the film fosters the misconception, you are not in fact watching Grimace the Movie. That powerfully purple suit is apparently the trademark of the comic book hero and makes for one hell of a fashion statement. All I can say is that Prince never looked taller. Try to take the character seriously, no I mean it, earnestly attempt to take him seriously as a hero. If the lavender, lycra suit fails to make you giggle, I would wager that the prophylactic shape it gives actor Billy Zane will subvert any sincere effort to maintain a straight face. We can laugh at his ridiculous costume but imagine how vulnerable he would be without that apt jungle camouflage.

Let’s take a moment to consider our star: Billy Zane. I like Billy, I think he’s a great byproduct of the decade and someone putting forth a lot more effort than this film deserves. Zane appeared in a number of great 90’s films including Tombstone, Memphis Belle, and Titanic; further cementing his 90’s presence with a five episode stint on Twin Peaks. In the suit, I think he works great as an action hero; unfortunately that relegates his finest moments to mere minutes of material while a stunt double shouldered most of the suited duties. But when he’s occupying the mild-mannered facade, he’s a giant dork. His smile evokes an image of Don Draper crossbred with a silver-back gorilla and his line delivery is less dapper and more Corky from Life Goes On. Some of it’s not his fault as the writing is pretty clunky. Why would an ancient tome refer to a power in terms of its comparability to high explosives? Seems a little too prescient of that tribe, no?

Why I Love It!

For reasons beyond my comprehension, the 1990’s saw a resurgence of lesser known superheroes. What makes this trend so peculiar was the fact that it bore a further subset of previously unseen tendencies. Not only were the heroes emerging on celluloid in this era relatively unfamiliar, but their temporal existence uniformly shifted as well. Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and finally The Phantom were all set between 1930 and 1945; replacing the familiar modern city aesthetic with steamy, pseudo-noir streets and art deco buildings. Granted this was no accident as the source material for these projects were likewise set, but what catalyst existed in the 90’s for this rash of adaptations is unclear. The one thing it did afford was heroes who were packing! I love that utility belts were suddenly replaced with gunbelts; grappling hooks with pistols. Do I like a good fist fight? Of course! But it’s just as fun to see Billy Zane or Alec Baldwin leave villains perforated by bullets.

My only theory regarding this trend is that some studio exec figured out that, even though the Indiana Jones trilogy had wrapped by 1989, audiences were still clamoring for period adventure films with pseudo-swashbuckling heroes. If that was not the consensus motivation for all these films, it certainly was an inspiration for The Phantom. The movie starts with dastardly treasure hunters pillaging an ancient temple followed by a truck chase and a high-flying rope bridge sequence. It was honestly one John Williams score short of the perfect framework for an Indiana Jones story. The prevalence of fedoras, prop-plane stunts, and face punching that sounded like a bullwhip further established an Indiana Jones-ian feel. If you don’t think this film was inspired by Indiana Jones, explain to me why there is a female character named Sala. Whatever the explanation, it amounts to one very entertaining film.

The Phantom marks the film that introduced audiences to Catherine Zeta-Jones; not her first film, but the first in which we all sat up and took notice. I have to say, she has never looked hotter than she did as the female air pirate Sala. Her acting chops were clearly not honed by 1996, but she is delectable as the sultry gangstress. The best part about her is that she is such a little sexpot; anything and everything around her appearing to rev her engine. I got the impression that she could actually handle herself in a fight and I like that she was completely feminine while also completely ruthless.

If you didn’t love Treat Williams before The Phantom…you may still not be his biggest fan afterwards. Personally, I love the guy and I think he is sublimely off his rocker in this film. He is clearly having the time of his life playing megalomaniacal Xander Drax (his name begins and ends with the letter X he’ll have you know). He is every bit channeling Lex Luthor…if Lex went to the Jim Carrey school of subtlety. He is vicious and cruel, but also kind of a goober. Every speech he makes while enraptured by the supernatural is overly grandiose and supremely loud. He’s a great villain, but one whose ass could easily be kicked in a fight; notice how he and The Phantom never come to fisticuffs.

Junkfood Pairing: Grape Soda

There are a plethora of purple-colored snack items out there so my options were fairly limitless. However, there is one particular shot wherein our hero grabs two thugs with his thighs o’ steel and for a few moments we are subjected to a longing camera glance at The Phantom’s ass. So as you stare at his big purple can, enjoy the crisp, refreshing nectar that pours from this purple can.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.