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Based on the comic strip created by Lee Falk, who also created Mandrake the Magician. As usual, Cranky makes no comparison to the source material.
400 years ago, the Brotherhood of Sengh were feared pirates who plied their wicked ways on the south seas. They were marked by a spider web tattoo and never left survivors when they plundered and looted, except for the young boy who jumped overboard and swam for his life.
The boy came ashore at the Benghalla Jungles of Skull Island and was adopted by the natives. He swore vengeance against the Brotherhood and all who would do evil. His son and grandson followed in this "family business" and, in movie time, the 21st Phantom continues the work in the year 1938.
In that year grave robbers, including the man who killed the twentieth Phantom, have stolen the first of three Skulls of Touganda Skulls that, when joined with its brothers, will generate unbelievable amounts of destructive mystic energy. The man who controls the triumvirate of skulls will have the power to rule the world.
That would be despot, Xander Drax, is played by Treat Williams. Williams plays it as the kind of bad guy who loves to be a bad guy -- gouging out eyes, spearing enemies in the back and blowing people up with mystic laser beams; all the while maintaining that he is just a simple business man who pays off the police under the table.
Quick divergence: as gross and gory as some of the stuff described above is, most of the actual violence takes place off screen or is implied. There are no fountains of blood spewing from punctured body parts, a la Friday the Thirteenth. Even the Phantom, who carries a pair of pistols loaded with more bullets than any could realistically fire, shoots only to disarm. All in all the movie's fairly clean.
On the other side of the globe Drax utilizes the services of very pretty and equally tough women pilots to do his dirty work. It makes sense when the leader, Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones), finds herself in a battle of attraction for the Phantom. Her challenger is Diana Palmer (played by Kristy Swanson), the kind of leading lady who has, as they used to say, spunk. That means looks and intelligence. She gets herself into trouble and, even with the Phantom's help, manages to carry her own pretty well.
Finally, Billy Zane, as the Phantom, runs around in a purple skin tight leotard with two very large guns and a thick leather belt at his hips. It looks totally ridiculous here but Zane plays the role almost as if the character knows that he looks ridiculous. He has a wolf sidekick named Devil, the ability to communicate with animals, and an amazing amount of self confidence. The gimmicks are not overused. What is used to the hilt are a number of physical stunts -- hanging off airplanes, jumping from car roof to car roof, jumping down elevator shafts -- which, unfortunately, brings up the obvious comparisons to a guy named Indiana.
The Phantom is the kind of action movie that really needs a John Williams score. But what it has will do. The Phantom is more like a 1940s serial layout -- narrow escapes and death defying leaps every eight or ten minutes. And like those serials, there are the occasional story gaps that don't make sense, but overall it's good Saturday fare for the kidlets. Gorgeous scenery on top of everything else for the adults.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for The Phantom, he would have paid . . .
Yeah... I loved the comic strip. Read it every day. Sundays, too.
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