By Anthony Ashley
Arizona Summer Wildcat June 12, 1996
Paramount Pictures has a sure-fire hit this summer, but it's not "The Phantom."
While only "Mission: Impossible" is a hit, Paramount does have a box office cheese-o-rama that passes itself off as a movie. "The Phantom" is not that bad of a movie, it's just super cheese. I mean, we're talking Velveeta!
Billy Zane's ("Dead Calm") rendition of the comic book hero is funny, heroic and dreamy, but he just doesn't have a gimmick. He's like Batman without the gadgets and the whiny Robin, like Superman without a cape or X-ray vision, or like Spiderman without his web. The Phantom relies on his strength (Zane is pretty buff), guns and his animals, a horse and a wolf (I'll question that in a minute).
The movie starts by explaining the origin of the Phantom. A young boy's father is killed by a group of pirates in the 16th century, and the boy is adopted by a native tribe in the Bengalla jungle. From lessons given by the elders of the tribe, he vows to take revenge on piracy, greed and cruelty. The story then brings us into 1938, a time of "chaos, dictators, and tyrants" (open your history book and you will see that World War II was fuming).
We see Quill (James Remar), a henchman, and his group of hoods, driving a truck through the jungle to steal one of three powerful, mystical skulls. When all three skulls are combined, they will create a force more powerful than a thousand soldiers, according to evil, preachy businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams).
The skull is stolen and taken back to Drax in New York City. The job, though, was not too easy with the Phantom, decked out in a clingy purple body suit (it must come from that new Nordstrom in the jungle), trying to retrieve it. Along with that skintight suit, where does one find a wolf in a jungle? That must explain the camel at the north pole!
Back in the city, we meet Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), a well-to-do city girl. It is her job, from her uncle - owner of a newspaper and arch nemesis of Drax - to investigate the mysterious Sang Brotherhood. The brotherhood is a spooky group that includes Quill. The brotherhood is known for its mark, a tattoo of a spider web. She leaves, only to get herself in trouble and kidnapped by the evil aviatrix Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones), a Xenia Onatopp look-a-like.
Swanson is eventually rescued by our hero and goes back to New York to help Kit Walker (the Phantom's alter ego) find the skulls before Drax puts them to no good.
In the end, everyone arrives at a mysterious volcanic isle for the third and last skull. This skull is protected by other members of the Sang Brotherhood, including the Great Kabai (Cary-Hiroyuk Tagawa, "Mortal Kombat"). A big, grand spectacle of a fight ensues, including swashbuckling, a friendship between the two bitchy sorority-like girls (Swanson and Jones), explosions, and some kung-fu fighting! *chop*
Director Simon Wincer ("Free Willy") crisply shoots this movie, giving it more personality than such wannabe franchises as "The Rocketeer" and "The Shadow." Wincer uses this movie as a grand celebration of the great cliffhanger series shown before weekend matinees in the 1950s. Too bad it lacks the excitement and special effects of today, containing many generic stunts and chase scenes.
The super-cute and buffed Zane plays The Phantom with zeal and excitement. His character is much more humorous and lite than the current and dark Batman. And those lips! Val Kilmer eat your heart out!
But I'm afraid Zane is wrong when he mutters to Swanson, "No one refuses the Phantom." He may be right in the sense that younger children will love this movie, but our age group may find it silly.
I'm refusing "The Phantom" for a $7 rating and giving him a $2 rating. If only I graded cheese, "The Phantom" would be THE cheesiest!