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The Shadow (1994) – film review

September 8, 2015


A reminder that superhero movies should be fun!

the shadow 1994

Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Screenplay by David Koepp. Starring: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Ann Miller, John Lone, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and Peter Boyle. Year of release: 1994. Running time: 108 minutes.

In 1930s New York a former drug lord, seeking redemption, reinvents himself as a masked vigilante known as The Shadow. Endowed with psychic powers he learnt in the East, he embarks on a secret mission to clean up the crime which infests the city. When an evil villain possessing the same abilities arrives in town to stake his claim, The Shadow must face his biggest challenge yet.

In the early nineties, following the runaway success of Tim Burton’s Batman in ‘89, major studios scrambled to develop their own 30s pulp-inspired properties in the hope of replicating Warner Brothers’ box office bonanza. Avoiding the oppressively dark Gothic tone of Burton’s Batman and the lurid over-the-top comic book operatics of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990) , the tone of Mulcahy’s pulp-inspired adventure yarn is far more comparible to Joe Johnston’s affectionate 30s serials homage The Rocketeer (1991) – with a liberal peppering of Indiana Jones-style wry humor thrown in for good measure.

Producer Martin Bregman (Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Carlito’s Way) had been striving to bring The Shadow to the big screen for over a decade; having grown up with the character on radio when he was a boy. Originally created by Walter B. Gibson in 1931, The Shadow began as a popular pulp magazine series spanning eighteen years and 325 stories. It also became a popular serialized radio drama which aired between 1937 and 1954 (with the titular character initially voiced by a young Orson Welles) and a fifteen chapter movie serial adaptation in 1940. It has been suggested the character of The Shadow could indeed be considered the prototypical vigilante superhero and a direct inspiration for Bob Kane’s Batman, as well as ‘V’ in Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta. And it is easy to see why. Dressed in a black cape, slouch hat, with a crimson bandana concealing his face (while sporting twin Colt .45 automatics) – The Shadow possesses the ability to ‘cloud the minds of men’ – that is, to telepathically hypnotize them so as to appear invisible, while only his shadow     is seen on the walls. He also has the power of hypnotic suggestion, whereby he is able to influence the thoughts of others and make them do or think whatever he commands. When invisible he is identifiable only by his maniacal laugh – which       he uses to spook his targets, before either killing them or forcing them to hand themselves in to police. To assist him in his task, The Shadow has recruited a secret network of helpers or Shadow Agents – victims of crime he has rescued who have sworn an oath of allegiance in return for him saving their lives. These agents can     be identified via a ruby red ring which glows when they are required. Aside from his trusted side-kick, the cab-driving Moe – the only other person who knows of his true identity (that of socialite playboy Lamont Cranston) is his Girl Friday and love interest Margo Lane – a feisty young woman who can literally hear his thoughts inside her head.

In an era where superhero movies have become depressingly turgid and self-important (post Dark Knight) – The Shadow refreshingly reminds us that these     things are meant to be fun! The fast-paced screenplay by David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park) reportedly went through fifteen drafts, with Koepp trying out various tonal approaches before the studio finally gave the greenlight and it went before the cameras. And it shows – as it becomes immediately apparent this is one tightly-honed screenplay: clearly the result of a well-researched and singular vision. The decision to set the film in the period in which it was created and resist updating it to modern times is inspired, with the melding of Eastern mysticism with a 1930s New York gang land setting not nearly as incongruous as one might expect.

the shadow - baldwin and miller

I’ve long held a soft spot for Alec Baldwin as an actor and his naturally suave leading man persona makes him an ideal choice here in the role of millionaire socialite crime-fighter Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow). His amusing banter with leading lady Penelope Ann Miller is also a good demonstration of the comic timing he had previously displayed in Beetlejuice. Penelope Ann Miller is also a lot of fun as the psychically-gifted Margo; displaying sassiness and smarts in equal measure (and it’s refreshing to see a female lead not just be another generic love interest for the hero to be rescued from peril – but a fascinating stand-alone character in her own right). John Lone as chief adversary Shiwan Khan is less a one-note, all-powerful villain of the recent Marvel films and more an antagonist on an equal footing with the hero (in a relationship with Cranston which is very similar to that seen between MacLeod       and The Kurgan in Mulcahy’s Highlander). As were the adversaries in Highlander, Cranston and Khan are pretty well matched in terms of their powers and abilities, but whereas Cranston is wrestling with the guilt and shame he feels over the terrible things he had done prior to his choosing a path of redemption, Khan gleefully revels in his villainy – making him an entertainingly formidable opponent. The remainder of the appealing cast also features some immediately recognizable faces, including: Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein, Outland) as Cranston’s trusty cab driver Moe and Tim Curry as a treacherous lab assistant, along with Ian McKellen as Margo’s scientist father (whose apparent color blindness paves the way for an amusing moment during the finale).

While some of the nineties CG effects are plainly obvious at times (particularly involving the magical dagger which features prominently) – these instances are not nearly enough to derail the entire movie (in comparison with other CG-heavy genre films of the era such as Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy for example). The on-point direction by celebrated visual stylist Russell Mulcahy (here helming his first and only big studio picture) beautifully captures the Saturday Matinee tone of 30s pulp serials. And although at this point in his career he had long eschewed the rock video cutting techniques he had pioneered (as featured in Razorback and Highlander) – for more traditional editing, his signature camera moves are still in evidence throughout; with many sweeping crane shots achieving the desired result of effectively immersing the viewer within this world. One show-stopping sequence in particular (incorporating live-action elements and impressive large-scale miniatures) is breath-taking in its execution – where, in a series of long vertiginous camera moves, we rapidly follow a pnuematic transport tube snaking up and down and around the outside of buildings for what appears to be entire city blocks – before finally delivering a message capsule to Cranston in his lair.

Aside from the witty banter between Cranston and Margo, there are plenty of         other humorous moments which are more visual gags. The funniest being what is essentially a throwaway moment (like one of those background gags from Airplane!)   where, in the distance, a mind-controlled sailor throws himself off the top of the Empire State Building – plummets in a screaming fall and thuds amusingly behind Cranston and Margo, strolling along in the foreground – completely oblivious.

Jerry Goldsmith’s lush and playful score is perhaps one of his most memorable if underappreciated. And the equally lush cinematography by Stephen H. Burum (Body Double, Mission: Impossible) really is gorgeous, while the lavish sets and detailed art direction (under the supervision of production designer Joe Nemec III – Terminator 2, Riddick) create an appealingly shiny and idealized vision of New York in the thirties.

In a world swamped with over-blown, turgid, super-serious superhero movies, its refreshing to come across such an entertaining throw-back to old-school adventure; putting fun back into a genre which (and let’s be honest here) sorely needs it. A terrific example of modern-era retro pulp done extremely well and with a great deal     of class.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. Very good sir


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