In 1996, I became keenly aware about the Ghost Who Walks, also known as The Phantom. The original comic strip started in 1936 by Lee Falk, centering around a pulp hero who fights crime in the jungles of Africa. The comic strip is still ongoing, which a testament to it's longevity. But I'm not here to talk about the comic, as great as it is. I'm here to talk about the 1996 film by Simon Wincer, which I admittedly enjoyed when I saw it in theaters when I was 10, and subsequent viewings since.
Wincer has a healthy list of movies to his resume. He saved Free Willy, tamed Crocodile Dundee, and thankfully swooped in and saved The Phantom from Batnipples fiend Joel Schumacher. At least Schumacher wasn't the first choice to be director — in fact, a Phantom movie had been in the works since the 70s.
Wincer was a fan of the original comic strip growing up, and it shows. While the movie didn't follow one single story arc, it did borrow from a few of them. In a rather fascinating interview with Slashfilm, Wincer admitted Paramount wanted the movie in a hurry, so he read the script while on the way to London and agreed to it. Originally the budget had been around $54 million, but Wincer got it down to $40. With filming in LA, Thailand, and Queensland, I'm personally amazed the budget wasn't higher. Wincer felt let down that the movie didn't do better, but said he had a ton of fun making it.
Writer Jeffrey Boam definitely captured the adventure and fun about The Phantom. While at times it did seem corny, the characters are fleshed out appropriately for a 90s action movie. He didn't try to make the Phantom something he wasn't, and the added characters for the movie were written well. Can you really look back and think any of these characters were useless?
The casting for the movie was fantastic. Billy Zane is the perfect Phantom. He had been attached to the movie from the start, and thankfully Paramount never replaced him. He filled out for the role nicely; the suit was originally padded to add muscle, but it was unnecessary by the time filming began.
Zane's low-key confidence, humor, and charm make The Phantom incredibly likeable. When he first rescues Diana, he very casually informs her that he is in fact rescuing her, and they go from there. Zane's chemistry with Kristy Swanson is real, and the two are a dynamic couple to watch.
Swanson's Diana is a fearless, curious, tough woman who helps the Phantom as much as he helps her. She's an investigative reporter, so getting into a jungle tiff is probably part of her job description. And Diana is never once reduced to simple decoration, even though she is the love interest of Zane's Phantom.
Diana's adversary, Catherine Zeta-Jones' Sala, adds a level of playfulness. Zeta-Jones owes a lot to this movie — it was her breakout role in Hollywood, and it was what landed her a role in The Mask of Zorro after Steven Spielberg saw her performance. Sala is in many ways like Diana. Fearless and beautiful, but in my opinion, the femme fatale in the film, with her women-only crew of pilots. The women in this film were all given great deals of power and strength — I just wish we could have seen more of it.
You can't really talk about the cast without mentioning Treat Williams as the movie baddie, Xander Drax. His over-the-top performance is pretty comical, but it's a good contrast to the otherwise serious Zane. It was hard for me to take him seriously, but that was part of the character. He was power-hungry, ruthless, and allowed power to completely consume him. The simplistic good vs. evil storyline is great, especially compared to all of the bogged-down comic book movies of today.
There's a lot more you can appreciate about the film. The costume for The Phantom, while fundamentally the same, did (thankfully) drop the striped underwear. The costume is a nice modern update. And the continual — maybe comical — use of skulls? He lives in a skull! He wears skulls! He's trying to rescue skulls! He has a skull! OK, I'm getting away from myself. But the film stuck to an idea and followed through. The design of the film — 1939 America — looks like the original strip. This is a pulp comic brought to life in the best way possible.
The best part of the film, in my honest opinion, is the soundtrack. David Newman's score is beautiful and sets the tone for each scene. I still listen to it in my car during particularly long road trips. It just feels heroic, and pretty epic. Seriously, listen:
If I've convinced you to buy the album, be sure to buy the expanded album. It's absolutely worth the cost.
Overall, the look and feel of the movie is in tune with the comic. Granted, I haven't read every single Phantom comic out there (there's a lot!), but other than a few new characters added for the movie and the under-use of Devil, it's fairly true. This was going to be the start of a trilogy, but alas, since the movie bombed, we never got the other two. It met the same fate as other period-piece comic films (such as The Shadow and my personal favorite, The Rocketeer): It didn't do well in theaters, but VHS/DVD sales have been incredibly strong. Maybe one day we'll finally get a proper Phantom trilogy.