Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: The Shadow (1994)

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows!
Ah the iconic phrase to signal the beginning of the classic work of 20th Century fiction.  The Shadow is one of the most recognizable pulp comic heroes of his era.  Originally he was the sinister sounding narrator of the radio program Detective Story Hour, an adaption of stories from Detective Story Magazine, starting in 1930….eight years before the creation of Superman and the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics.  The narrator proved to be very popular and was rewarded with his own comic book feature the following year and later in 1937 his own radio drama, for which he is probably best known.   In the comic he was Kent Allard, an aviator and veteran of World War I who fakes his death and begins to wage war on crime, becoming “The Shadow”.  He used many different aliases, including “Lamont Cranston” (Although the real Lamont Cranston was a separate character) as well as having many agents working for him…including Lamont Cranston (So confusing…).  In the radio drama much of the character’s traits and powers were altered.  Here his real name was indeed Lamont Cranston, wealthy young man about town, an instead of numerous agents at his command he was mainly aided by Margo Lane, an original character created for the show (And somewhat disliked by fans of the comic).
I LOVE the Shadow.  When I was growing up I used to listen to his adventures all the time, especially on long car rides.  In fact both my father and grandfather were fans of the drama as well so it’s sort of a family tradition.  One day I may track down some of those old recordings to make sure I can share it with my own children (Though as you may have guessed by the fact that I have a internet blog I am indeed single at the moment so that may yet be a while).   So in 1994 when a live action movie based on the character hit theaters you can bet your ass I was excited as hell!  But even at nine years old I could tell that something was…amiss with the film, even if I couldn’t exactly tell what or why.  It was directed by Russell Mulcahy who is famous for such blockbusters as Highlander II: The Quickening and direct-to-DVD masterpiece The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior.  This is the first warning sign.  The second is that it stars Alec Baldwin. Now perhaps things were different in the mid-90s but these days it’s hard for me to picture the guy in anything other than a comedy or narrating The Royal Tenebaums.  I admit this may be my own personal hang up but when I watched this movie I keep expecting Tina Fey to walk onto the camera while Baldwin fights the forces of evil.
Jack: Lemon, do you know what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
Liz: Well I-
Jack: That was rhetorical, Lemon; of course you don't

Even so it’s hard to argue against Baldwin’s acting ability and despite the fact that Highlander II was a cinema equivalent of a kick to balls and a subsequent setting of fire to said balls Mulcahy DID also direct The Highlander (The original one) and that movie had amazing fantasy/Sci-Fi lore so there’s no reason to simply disregard this film.  Not until after I’m done with it, of course.
In the aftermath of World War I Lamont Cranston (Baldwin) has set himself up as a drug warlord in Tibet under the name “Ying-Ko”.  One day he is abducted by a powerful holy man who sees great capacity for good in the man.  Cranston is taught how to “cloud men’s minds” (And a butt load of other weird psychic crap, apparently) before returning to New York City a changed man.  Using these powers, as well as a large amount of blackmailed agents, he becomes The Shadow and fights the forces of evil and corruption.  Things become complicated when a man named Shiwan Kahn (John Lone) arrives in the city with a nefarious scheme in place and his eyes directed towards Cranston.
It’s worth noting that the film seems to be an amalgam of the comic and the radio show, taking elements from both but also adding things as the writer and director saw fit. 
If nothing else Baldwin looks exactly like The Shadow when he wears the costume, though it may not be all a hard to do so.  But with the hat, the scarf, and dual pistols he looks like the character literally came to life off the pages of the classic comics.  I also though that, despite the many flaws we’ll get into, Shiwin Kahn had a number of interesting quirks that helped make him a more bearable villain such as he fondness for brandy and appreciation of a good tie.   The Shadow’s origin is pretty intriguing here.  It seems far darker than in both the comics and the radio drama, Cranston being a bloodthirsty criminal and all, but gives a lot more detail than I believe either of the source materials divulged.  Its not perfectly realized here but it is interesting and certain aspects remind me of the origin scenes in Batman Begins, a much better movie that wouldn’t come out for another eleven years.
Though you may not appreciate the costume like I do
That all said this movie is literally made out of ham.  The dialogue dips into the hammy region constantly and Baldwin is overacting like crazy, especially when he attempts to do the Shadow’s trademark maniacal laughter.  Try not cracking up when you hear that noise.  Frankly this feels like a big miscast, but some (Though I doubt “all”) of the blame can be put on the awful script, which we’ll get into soon.  Baldwin does the best he can but the net result is more hilarious than dramatic.  John Lone is alright, but his character is so badly written that it was hard to care one way or the other.  Penelope Ann Miller is Margo Lane, but I can’t take her seriously partly because her lines all sounded forced and partly because her character feels superfluous.  In the radio drama she was the Shadow’s partner, aiding Cranston in his investigations, but here they turned her into a psychic whose only importance to the plot is that Kahn kidnapped her father.
In fact that whole “Margo Lane is Psychic” plot point, aside from never being the case in the radio drama, is just a time sink here since it never amounts to anything more than “The Shadow can’t control her mind and therefore they are drawn to each other”.  The powers never become useful later in the film, especially at one point when KAHN MIND CONTROLS HER EASILY despite her supposedly being immune or resistant to such things earlier!  Maybe it wasn’t so much she’s psychic so much as Lamont was accidently trying to cloud her mind with the wrong head.  Broads will do that to ya.
Broads: With Absolute Control Over the Weak Minded
(i.e. Dudes)
Also starring in this movie is Sir Ian McKellen for some reason.  How the studio bamboozled one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of a generation into appearing into this nonsense is a mystery, but then again he later voluntarily appeared in X-Men 3 so obviously he’s not above appearing in terrible, terrible films.  Anyway here he plays Dr. Lane, Margo’s father and a plot point.  He spends the majority of this film speaking in monotone and not emoting.  Way to cast one of our greatest thespians in a role that doesn’t require him to do any of that acting he’s famous for.  Well done, Hollywood, well done.  Spekaing of surprise casting choices what the hell is Tim Curry doing here?  He’s a playing a villain which is what he’s a master of, sure, but his character is not relevant to the plot.  His big scene, involving trapping the Shadow, meant nothing in the long run!  Damn it, movie, stop putting my favorite actors in your crap if you’re barely going to actually utilize them!
Cast aside there’s pretty much just one major problem with this film: it can’t seem to decide if it’s a gritty dark superhero film or a comedic fantasy adventure and it destroys the tone of the film as a result.  The dialogue, the plot, and the characters themselves al end up looking ridiculous since half the cast at any given point look out of place.  Sometimes it feels like a dark and cynical movie, with scenes like the opening one in Tibet and the fact that the Shadow uses lethal force.  Then we’ll see the Shadow running around with a wacky taxi driving sidekick (Played by Peter Boyle and again I ask “what the hell are you doing here?”) and uttering James Bond-like one liners.  “Next time you get to be on top,” he says to a dead henchman he used to cushion his fall off a building.   Hahahahaha; he just downplayed his brush with doom by making a sexual joke at the expense of THE DEAD GUY HE JUST KILLED!  Hilarious!  It’s like, and I bet this is actually what happened, someone saw the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie and thought that the Shadow could make an equally good film, wrote a really dark script, and then got told by producers that it was “too scary” and was then ripped up to make it more “PG-13 & Action Figure Friendly”.
Anyway everything that bugs me about this film stems from that problem.  I can’t take Baldwin seriously because of the constant and jarring mood shifts and at times it seems that even he himself is confused as to what movie he’s in.  Shiwan Kahn, while having shades of a more interesting villain, fails due to the sheer cartoonish nature of his plot and the fact that the movie goes to insanely long lengths to show just how eviiiil he is.  I’m surprised he doesn’t just start kicking random puppies as he walked along the street.  There is no subtlety here at all.  Plus what’s up with that weird living Phurba dagger thing?  Is it suppose to be scary, because it just seems weird to me.
A reasonable facsimile of the Phurba in the film
Also voiced by Frank Welker
A minor nitpick I had was the scope of The Shadow’s powers.  In the comic he could alter people's perception to make it seem as if he was standing farther left or right than he actually was, which is a pretty low key but useful ability.  In the radio drama he could “cloud men’s minds” so he would appear invisible.  In this film he has the amazing ability to do whatever the plot calls for from Jedi mind control to telekinesis.   Now I hope I don’t actually have to remind anyone that The Shadow isn’t really a superhero so much as he’s a Noir-like pulp comic hero, who have some similarities but more were more grounded in their abilities.  He just seems somewhat overpowered here and, like his nemesis, lacks any sort of subtly.
Bottom line this movie is crap, but it’s the type of crap that ends up being entertaining.  It’s “so bad its good” and hilarious for all the wrong reasons.  As a film standing on its own merits its dumb, campy, and needlessly long since so much of the film ended up being pointless and went nowhere.  However this is a perfect movie to watch with your friends and make fun of in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.  I suspect that’s the best hope for milking any entertainment out of this stinker.
I give The Shadow 2 out of 5 Adorable Pandas.
-Certain aspects of the film are an intriguing take on the source material
-Hilarious, though possibly not in the intended way
-Tons of overacting
-Cool actors abound, but not doing a damn thing
-The movie tries to be dark/cynical AND campy/fun with predictably disastrous results

Thankfully we can rest easy knowing that Hollywood must have learned some pretty crucial lessons about adapting old radio dramas into modern cinema after this film.  I assume the next time they make such a flick, he said with blissful naivet√©, it’ll be a much more appropriate translation.
Next Review: The Green Hornet

The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.  Crime does not pay.  The Shadow knows!

1 comment:

  1. BM: If you're interested in Orson Welles' one-season stint as The Shadow, go to and listen/download the entire season!

    You can also see/download the first two B-movies starring Rod LaRoque as Lamont Cranston/The Shadow...
    Shadow Strikes:
    International Crime:


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