The Ghost Who Walks. The Oath of the Skull. The Skull Cave. Devil the loyal wolf and Hero the spirited white stallion. Everything about “The Phantom” is pleasantly old-fashioned, the opposite of avant-garde and cutting edge. Not intended for those who yearn for greatness, this unassuming adventure film is so cheerful and sweet-natured it’s difficult to resist warming up to its modest charms.
Based on the venerable newspaper comic strip that debuted more than 60 years ago and went on to success in 25 languages, “The Phantom” is gently self-mocking as opposed to excessively wised up. With a straight-arrow hero and villains that wouldn’t scare a tadpole, it holds our interest via its human scale and the pleasure it takes in being true to its origins.
As created by Lee Falk, the Phantom fights evil in all its forms from his stronghold in the mythic jungles of Bengalla. The local people think the masked man in the form-fitting purple jumpsuit is immortal, but in fact for 20 generations son has succeeded father in this curious family business, which began when the first Phantom’s father was murdered by the dread Sengh Brotherhood some 400 years before the film’s 1938 opening.
The current Phantom (Billy Zane) has but recently taken over from his murdered dad (Patrick McGoohan), who is considerate enough to show up periodically as a sage spirit offering wisdom and advice.
The Phantom is happy for the help because power-mad captain of industry Xander Drax (Treat Williams) is thinking of teaming up with the Senghs to bring together the three lost skulls of Touganda. If reunited, these artifacts of gold, silver and jade would “harness an energy that could destroy the world.” Not the sort of thing you’d want to fall into the wrong hands.
Complicating the picture is the presence in Bengalla of the fetching and headstrong Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”). “Pretty in a spoiled rich girl kind of way,” Diana is a feisty adventurer whom the Phantom knew in his earlier incarnation as Kit Walker, handsome American college student. Now the lady finds herself wondering why the guy in the mask looks so darn familiar.
“The Phantom” switches back and forth between Bengalla and a charmingly re-created 1930s Manhattan, the headquarters of Xander Drax. Boasting leering villains and even a troupe of female air pirates who fly nifty red planes, the film’s gee-whiz characteristics are more in line with Saturday matinee serials than the showy pyrotechnics of the “Batman” movies.
This is not to say that everything is completely straight. Jeffrey Boam’s amiable, jokey script is keyed to fun lines like “The damn thing came alive and choked him to death” and (a personal favorite) “Gosh, you’re pretty in those woodsy flannels,” but it rarely forces its quiet humor.
Director Simon Wincer (whose credits include “Free Willy” and television’s “Lonesome Dove”) is in harmony with the script’s “there’s no smoking in the Skull Cave” sensibility, adding his usual pleasant tone and helping the actors to achieve a consistent ensemble effect.
It’s characteristic of “The Phantom’s” aims that even its physical action is mostly human-scaled, involving not computer images but tricky moves by flesh-and-blood stunt people. It’s nice to see some things done the old way. The Ghost Who Walks would surely approve.
* MPAA rating: PG, for action-adventure violence and some mild language. Times guidelines: unobjectionable all the way around.
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Billy Zane: Phantom/Kit Walker
Kristy Swanson: Diana Palmer
Treat Williams: Xander Drax
Catherine Zeta Jones: Sala
James Remar: Quill
Patrick McGoohan: Phantom’s Dad
A Village Roadshow Pictures production, in association with Robert Evans and the Ladd Co., released by Paramount Pictures. Director Simon Wincer. Producers Robert Evans, Alan Ladd Jr. Executive producers Richard Vane, Joe Dante, Graham Burke, Greg Coote, Peter Sjoquist, Bruce Sherlock. Screenplay Jeffrey Boam, based on the characters created by Lee Falk. Cinematographer David Burr. Editor O. Nicholas Brown. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music David Newman. Production design Paul Peters. Supervising art director Lisette Thomas. Set decorator Amy Wells. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.