Cranking out another unrecognizable movie based on a familiar title, “The Phantom” is the kind of production that has historically made comicbook aficionados cringe — a “reimagining” of the venerable cartoon strip character that feels as much like “Dawson’s Creek” as what’s actually an extremely cool masked hero. Add a new-look costume, and this “Phantom” is a mere shadow of even the much-maligned (somewhat unfairly) theatrical version that starred Billy Zane. RHI Entertainment’s business model provides promotable fantasy fare at reasonable prices, but here at least, Syfy has gotten exactly what it paid for.
In the Lee Falk strip, the Phantom struck fear in the hearts of adversaries. Known as “the ghost who walks,” the mantle passed from father to son for generations, making superstitious natives think the hero was more than 400 years old.
That’s the rough skeleton, in essence, that director Paolo Barzman and writers Daniel and Charles Knauf have used for a modern reload, in which Kit Walker (Ryan Carnes) — an inordinately athletic twentysomething student — discovers his whole life has been a lie. After an interminable intro during which he falls for a red-haired paramedic (Cameron Goodman), the kid’s informed he’s really the 22nd Phantom, having been placed in foster care after his mother’s murder 19 years earlier.
An extended training period follows, as Kit is whisked away to exotic Bengalla Island and groomed by his newfound mentors (Jean Marchand, Sandrine Holt) to wear the mask. Only as “reloaded,” after fleetingly surveying the original costume in a nod to fans, he segues into a bulky high-tech one — complete with black visor — that more than doubles his strength and speed. (Why he needs all the training when the costume does all that for him is anyone’s guess, but never mind.)
Eventually, Kit must face off against the Singh Brotherhood, a syndicate of ruthless pirates as ancient as the Phantom whose crimes include but are not limited to bad acting. The Brotherhood employs Isabella Rossellini as a mad scientist in a gray Louise Brooks wig, waging a bizarre plot involving mind control through cable TV. (Isn’t that just called “Fox News Channel?”)
Syfy is airing the two parts in one four-hour burst, perhaps to make the whole thing go away faster. It’s too bad, since there are flashes of what makes the Phantom interesting — including a signature skeleton ring that leaves a branded mark when he strikes opponents.
Mostly, this “Phantom” brings to mind the cheesy superhero projects of the ’70s and ’80s, before comics were taken seriously either as an art form or for their commercial potential. And after one (very) long night, this apparition, and aberration, figures to become a ghost all over again.