The Phantom (1996) – Directed by Simon Wincer – Starring Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Treat Williams, James Remar, Bill Smitrovich, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Patrick McGoohan.
Simon Wincer’s THE PHANTOM is a quietly great movie that’s perfect for a Saturday afternoon.
THE PHANTOM is exactly the kind of movie I want to relax with after a hard week at work. I want to plop on the couch and be transported into another world for some really good, enjoyable, fun action and adventure, and THE PHANTOM delivers this in spades. Well-paced, full of good (if simply rendered) characters, exciting action, beautiful locales, and infused with something akin to innocence.
It’s that last but that really makes THE PHANTOM stand out – there’s no ego here, no shame about what the material is they’re presenting to the audience, and Simon Wincer and Company have embraced the idea of a fun, all-ages romp and that’s what they deliver. The very idea of romance between Kit Walker/The Phantom (Billy Zane) and Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) is handled in such a chaste manner that when she asks him to take off his mask so she can see his face, she has to assure him that she already knows who he is.
Wincer quickly moves through the origin story – a group of pirates kill a kid’s dad and he bails, washing up on shore where the Bengalla islanders take him in and train him to be the Phantom. For generations, the legacy is passed from father to sun, but no one outside of the tribe realizes this is the case. Instead, everyone thinks the Phantom is immortal, giving him the “ghost who walks” nickname. We meet the current Phantom when a few archaeology thieves led by Quill (James Remar) steal one of the three Skulls of Touganda for Xander Drax (Treat Williams).
Remar, Williams, and Zane are perfect examples of the excellent casting done for this movie. Remar has that shady, tough guy vibe down so we don’t need to spend a lot of time with his characterization. We get that he’s a bad dude, and that he’s evil enough to make a little kid drive a truck over a rickety bridge, but he’s not so evil that he’ll shoot the kid afterwards like his henchmen want.
Treat Williams is the best part of the film, completely embracing the over-the-top aspect of his villainy. He’s slick, smooth, and deadly, willing to be completely charming a second before he puts a knife in your back. He walks through the world like it’s here for his pleasure, but he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty when the time comes. Interestingly, it’s not more Phantom vs. Drax action that I would have preferred to see, but more between Drax and the film’s other villain, Kabai Sengh (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the head pirate. It’s this villainous showdown that has the most energy in the film, as Drax’s slickness comes up against Sengh’s harshness. Watching them spar back and forth in the film’s tensest moment (Drax has two of the three skulls and Sengh has the third) renders everyone else’s involvement momentarily moot.
“X-A-N-D-E-R-D-R-A-X,” he says easily, spelling out his name for Sengh. “It begins and ends with X.”
After Quill steals the first skull, we jump back to New York and meet Diana, the go-get-’em society girl who’d rather play in the world than sit safely at home. Her Uncle Dave (Bill Smitrovich) is a big shot newspaper publisher (for kids watching THE PHANTOM for the first time – newspapers used to allow people to make gobs of money) and encourages Diana’s adventure streak. When Dave is convinced that Drax is up to supernatural no good, he sends Diana to Bengalla to look for evidence. On the way there, her plane is highjacked by female air pirates, led by the hot and dangerous Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones).
Bits like this really make me dig PHANTOM. I mean, hot female air pirates, you know? What’s not to love. And then when they come aboard and demand Diana Palmer to show herself, Diana immediately steps forward.
It’s hard to watch PHANTOM and not wonder why Swanson didn’t have a bigger career. She’s got an easy toughness on display here; she gets forced into playing the damsel on occasion, but she’s never in distress. I love how the film doesn’t oversell the whole idea of, “I’m a woman and I can do it on my own,” because Diana so clearly is a woman doing it on her own in nearly every scene she’s in.
Zane plays the Phantom with that same kind of easy toughness, but there’s also a vulnerability here. He sees the ghost of his dead father (Patrick McGoohan) every so often, and the old man delights in giving his kid a hard time over losing the first skull and later when he seemingly lets Diana get away from him.
THE PHANTOM is a bright, fun romp. It’s produced and performed with just the right sense of flair. Everything looks good and there’s a point in the movie where I realized just how much fun it would have been to see a host of Phantom movies with our purple-clad hero taking his adventures all over the world. Unfortunately, the world box office did not respond to the filmmakers’ efforts. Despite costing a modest $45 million, THE PHANTOM only managed to bring in a pitiful $17 million at the domestic box office. (Box Office Mojo doesn’t have international figures listed.) SyFy tried their hand at taking Lee Falk’s hero to the small screen in 2010, but I haven’t seen it, and there’s always talk of a new big screen adaptation. I wish the new production well, but watching Wincer’s film it’s hard for me not to think that we had something special here that was not allowed to grow.