While it hardly stands to vanquish the celluloid incarnations of Superman and Batman, this version of an older cartoon crusader’s exploits does have a pleasingly astute sense of its place in the great scheme of things pulp. Pic brings a light touch to appealingly old-fashioned action material.
The phantom admirably avoids any temptation to modernize or complicate a hero who became a prototype for many that would follow when Hearst cartoonist Lee Falk introduced him in 1936.
Story opens with four fedora-wearing thugs braving the island’s jungle to steal a mysterious metal skull. The Phantom (Billy Zane) swoops in to thwart the heist, but unavoidably lets the main miscreant go free. White-collar master criminal Xander Drax (Treat Williams) has been trying to acquire the legendary Skulls of Touganda, which supposedly have magical powers when united.
The Gotham politico investigating Drax can’t follow the evidence all the way to Bengalla, so he sends his niece, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), who arrives only to be quickly taken prisoner by Drax henchman Quill (James Remar) and the vixenish Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones). Aided by his trusty wolf, Devil, the Phantom plucks Diana from the villains’ grasp.
While there’s little distinctive about pic’s style, helmer Simon Wincer does a capable job drawing together elements that require lots of stuntwork and special effects, and filming in several far-flung locales including remote parts of Thailand, which contributed a hefty share of eye-grabbing scenery. Like much of the surrounding film, Zane’s masked hero is unapologetically two-dimensional, and he’s nicely matched by Swanson’s Girl Scout of a heroine. The baddies come across more vividly. The standouts here are Remar, Zeta Jones and, especially, Williams.