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The Phantom

"The Phantom" admirably avoids any temptation to modernize or complicate a hero whom Hearst cartoonist Lee Falk introduced in 1936 and who became a prototype for many that would follow. The biggest question posed by the film-in-prospect was how Falk's white lord of the jungle, a protective patriarch to dark-skinned natives, would be transformed for the multicultural, racially sensitive '90s.

With:
Phantom/Kit Walker ... Billy Zane Diana Palmer ... Kristy Swanson Xander Drax ... Treat Williams Sala ... Catherine Zeta Jones Quill ... James Remar Kabai Sengh ... Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Morgan ... Casey Siemaszko Lilly Palmer ... Samantha Eggar Phantom's Dad ... Patrick McGoohan While it hardly stands to vanquish the celluloid incarnations of Superman and Batman, this version of an older cartoon crusader's exploits does the job well enough to carve its own niche in an increasingly mined-out genre. Nothing in its bag of tricks is new, and star Billy Zane comes across as lightweight compared with some of his well-muscled competition, but "The Phantom" 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, creating a fast-moving yarn that bids to become a solid fixture among the season's second-tier B.O. winners.

“The Phantom” admirably avoids any temptation to modernize or complicate a hero whom Hearst cartoonist Lee Falk introduced in 1936 and who became a prototype for many that would follow. The biggest question posed by the film-in-prospect was how Falk’s white lord of the jungle, a protective patriarch to dark-skinned natives, would be transformed for the multicultural, racially sensitive ’90s.

In effect, Jeffrey Boam’s script deals with that issue by deftly avoiding it. This jungle’s dwellers are pushed so far to the story margins that it’s hard to tellwhether they’re supposed to be African, Asian or theme-park generic. The solution will probably sit well with everyone except actors of color, who might have liked a shot at the film’s main roles.

TX:A Paramount release, presented in association with Robert Evans and the Ladd Co., of a Village Roadshow production. Produced by Robert Evans, Alan Ladd Jr. Executive producers, Richard Vane, Joe Dante, Graham Burke, Greg Coote, Peter Sjoquist, Bruce Sherlock. Co-producer, Jeffrey Boam. Directed by Simon Wincer. Screenplay, Jeffrey Boam, based on characters created by Lee Falk. Another effective decision was to keep the tale in the 1930s, where its central conceits are a bit more plausible and the comparisons to Indiana Jones (whose adventures were certainly influenced by the Phantom’s) are usefully obvious.

There is a brief prologue about how the original Phantom was reared on Bengalla Island after seeing his father slain by pirates, then the main story opens with four fedora-wearing thugs who are braving the island’s jungle to steal a mysterious metal skull.

Riding his white stallion and wearing his trademark purple costume, the Phantom (Zane) swoops in to thwart the heist, but unavoidably lets the main miscreant go free while helping a little boy escape from a truck that’s hanging precariously over a spectacular rocky gorge.

The reasons behind the theft, it emerges, are in far-off New York, where 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 who is investigating Drax can’t follow the evidence all the way to Bengalla, so he sends his adventurous niece, Diana Palmer (KristySwanson); she 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. The two escape by commandeering a sea plane and then jumping from it to horseback. When Diana returns to New York, her rescuer is not far behind her, disguised as his alter ego, Kit Walker.

The Phantom is actually the 20th in 400 years to bear that name. The jungle’s denizens consider him an immortal, the Ghost Who Walks, although in reality the identity is handed down from father to son, a practice that necessitates the occasional cooperation of women like Diana.

New York presents little chance for romance, though, because Kit and Diana are quickly swept up in Drax’s determined efforts to gain a corner on the occult-powers market. After he locates another of the famous skulls at a New York museum, the whole crew of contending heroes and villains launches forth for an uncharted island, supposed location of the final skull.

The curio is, in fact, on the isle, but the tropical hideaway also houses the descendants of the vicious pirates who killed the original Phantom’s father. The resulting three-sided confrontation provides for a suitably rousing finale.

While there’s little distinctive about pic’s style, helmer Simon Wincer does a capable job drawing together elements that require lots of stunt work and special effects, and filming in several far-flung locales including remote parts of Thailand, which contributed a hefty share of eye-grabbing scenery.

As the Phantom, Zane makes enough of an impression to earn a part in any franchise that may result from this film. The young actor is handsome and athletic, qualities that count the most in a role that might benefit from additional acting force but hardly requires it. 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.

As is so often the case, the baddies come across more vividly, providing not only menace but welcome comic sidelights as well. The standouts here are Remar, Jones and, especially, Williams.

As Drax, the latter adds to his show-stealing turn in last year’s “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” to suggest that he’s one of the most adroit and imaginative supporting players around right now.

A particular highlight of the production is the 1930s New York created by designer Paul Peters and his team in several expansive art deco sets. Other tech efforts are similarly expert.

The Phantom

Production: The Phantom (Action-adventure -- Color)

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), David Burr; editor, O. Nicholas Brown; music, David Newman; production design, Paul Peters; art direction, Lisette Thomas; set decoration, Amy Wells; costume design, Marlene Stewart; sound (DTS), Ben Osmo; associate producer, Bonnie Abaunza; assistant director, Robert J. Donaldson; second unit director, Vic Armstrong; casting, Deborah Aquila, Jane Shannon. Reviewed at Sony 19th Street East Theater, N.Y., June 5, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 100 min.

With: Phantom/Kit Walker ... Billy Zane Diana Palmer ... Kristy Swanson Xander Drax ... Treat Williams Sala ... Catherine Zeta Jones Quill ... James Remar Kabai Sengh ... Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Morgan ... Casey Siemaszko Lilly Palmer ... Samantha Eggar Phantom's Dad ... Patrick McGoohan While it hardly stands to vanquish the celluloid incarnations of Superman and Batman, this version of an older cartoon crusader's exploits does the job well enough to carve its own niche in an increasingly mined-out genre. Nothing in its bag of tricks is new, and star Billy Zane comes across as lightweight compared with some of his well-muscled competition, but "The Phantom" 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, creating a fast-moving yarn that bids to become a solid fixture among the season's second-tier B.O. winners.

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