From a box office standpoint, the more pertinent question than “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” may be “Who knows or cares anything about the Shadow?”– a character whose heyday came in the ’30s. Despite the film’s visual opulence, that factor alone should prevent “The Shadow” from covering much summer audience once those predisposed to see it have run their course.
Starting with the main title credits backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s brooding score, “The Shadow” is clearly trying to mine the “Batman” lode, down to its impressive production design, somber tone and occasional flashes of high camp.
Despite similarities as a vigilante creature of the night, however, the Shadow — a character that enjoyed its greatest success in radio after being created in pulp novels — lacks the visceral appeal of Batman and won’t strike the same chord with moviegoers. Indeed, those fa-miliar with the character are more likely to be 70 than 17.
That leaves the movie in its own shadow world, desperately trying to sell itself to teenagers without alienating its core of fans. While it may offer scant consolation to Universal, in the latter regard, at least, “The Shadow” is more satisfying than an effort like “Dick Tracy,” though the end result is a hollow production design showcase.
Pic opens with its worst sequence, set in Tibet, illustrating how Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) acquires his Shadowy powers. Director Russell Mulcahy recovers with a stylish introduction of the character in New York, as the Shadow rescues a scientist (Sab Shimono) and recruits him as one of his many operatives.
The heart of the story involves a comic-book nemesis, Shiwan Khan (John Lone) , a descendant of Genghis Khan who possesses the same mental powers as the Shadow and harbors his ancestor’s world-conquering ambitions.
Influencing the mind of noted if slightly daft scientist Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen), Khan decides to start his quest by destroying New York, fashioning a pre-nuclear facsimile of an atomic bomb. Cranston, meanwhile, finds himself entangled with Lane’s daughter, Margo (Penelope Ann Miller), who unknowingly possesses a natural facility that forges a psychic link between the two.
Mulcahy, principally known as a commercial and musicvideo director before helming “Highlander” and its sequel, remains a gifted visual stylist but struggles with character and meanders when it comes to advancing a story — a challenge made more difficult thanks to the underdeveloped script by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”).
The movie does offer its share of action, making the most of the character’s creepy power to slink into and out of shadows. Those flourishes and the efforts of the special-effects team, production designer Joseph Nemec III and costume designer Bob Ringwood are the pic’s real stars.
That said, Baldwin turns in a sturdy central performance, putting his steely tough-guy act to good use while managing to bring some dimension and self-effacing humor to his role regarding the character’s tormented past. Lone also provides a shrewd and formidable adversary, despite having to overcome such near-laughable camp trappings as walking down Broadway in full Mongol armor.
Other performances, however, are either uneven or wildly over-the-top, particularly Miller’s shameless vamping as the female lead. Her lack of chemistry with Baldwin represents one of the many obstacles that even the powers of the Shadow can’t quite overcome.
Tech credits, as noted, are superb, particularly the combination of matte shots and miniatures used to create Gotham, or rather, New York City.