The Phantom (1996)

Simon Wincer’s “The Phantom” just doesn’t get any respect, damn it, and I think it deserves a lot more than it receives from movie fans. Not only does director Wincer embrace the source material of the Phantom, but he casts someone like Billy Zane, who fits so well in to the mold of the Phantom, it’s eerie. I just wish more audiences appreciated the boldness of the pulp hero sub-genre for “The Phantom” to have caught on and perhaps spawn a movie series. The best we got in the nineties was a pretty awesome animated series that provided a futuristic spin on Lee Falk’s comic strip superhero. “The Phantom” is a sleek and breezy action film in the vein of “Indiana Jones” that finds Zane as Kit Walker.

He is one in a long line of crime fighting phantoms known in the jungles as “The Ghost Who Walks.” The legacy of Phantoms handed down from Father to Son are trained in martial arts, stealth, and various other skills, and have convinced their enemies that the persona of the Phantom is one man who has earned immortality. As an added touch, every Phantom, with the help of his patented skull ring, scars every villain with a mighty punch, leaving his calling card. Zane is at home in the role as the titular hero, starring alongside Kristy Swanson who plays love interest and intrepid reporter Diana Palmer. Walker learns of a power hungry business man named Xander Drax who is sending mercenaries in to the jungles to find three sacred skulls that, when combined, form a very destructive weapon of mass destruction.

Drax and his team race against Kit to find and combine the skulls, and track down the source of their powers at a mysterious island where the Phantom learns more about his past. As he battles Drax and his thugs Quill (James Remar) he begins to come to terms with his love for Diana, re-emerges in to civilization, and also learns the circumstances involving the fate of his father, the original Phantom, who was murdered when he was a child. Billy Zane was always such a fine actor, and he fits well in to the purple suit of the Phantom like Robert Downey Jr. did with Tony Stark. Zane is able to take a break from playing heels to take on the dashing hero and jet setter and he accomplishes the role of Walker well, even garnering a personal driver. Zane’s wit is dry, which allows him to play subtle comedy and stern drama without a hitch.

Not to mention the suit, which is designed to look multi-faceted, looks great on-screen. Treat Williams is another wise casting choice, playing toward the mustache twirling megalomaniacal super villain very well and working strongly off of Zane and Swanson. Catherine Zeta Jones is also very good as femme fatale Sala, who is torn between allegiances throughout the film. Simon Wincer’s treatment of “The Phantom” is a childhood favorite that deserves another shot in the limelight, as the legend and superhero offer some great superhero fodder that’s both gritty but lighthearted.