In Defense Of...1994's The Shadow
It is the 1930s…and a dark cloaked figure has become incredibly popular on newsstands. He has a genius-level intellect. He is at the peak of mental and physical conditioning. He is a master detective, master of disguise and master of stealth. He’s a skilled marksman and martial artist. His alter ego is a millionaire playboy. He is a vigilante, ruthlessly hunting down those that would prey upon the innocent, those that the law cannot or will not confront.
You think I’m talking about Batman…don’t you?Nope. Batman came about in 1939, at the close of the decade. Instead, we’re in 1931, a full 8 years before the Caped Crusader is born. To determine this crime fighter’s identity, we have to ask ourselves…”Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
“THE SHADOW KNOWS!”
While I could make an article in and of itself on the history of the character (which, I have to admit would require far more research that just watching a movie!), for the purposes of this review it is enough to say that one could easily say that The Shadow is just as much a father to Batman as his creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane. That said, let’s jump forward in time. 1989. Tim Burton’s Batman arrives on screen and triggers a pop culture phenomenon. The movie and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, make a killing at the box office. As is usual with Hollywood, success like that create the same sound in the offices of executives: “Get me one of those!” (Thank you, Peter Guber). And so, in 1994, came Universal’s ‘The Shadow’.
Before we get into the meat of the review, since is the first review in this particular style, the point of these “In Defense of…” reviews is to take movies that were critically panned in their day and explain why they might be worth a second chance. The validity of my appeals are, of course, subject to the reader. There are just some movies out there that I’ll defend to my dying breath and at best, maybe five whole people might change their minds…Superman Returns for example.
Okay…so back to The Shadow. First, let’s take a look at the movie on its own merits. First and foremost, it is mostly a visually stunning film. Even back during its initial release, critics were able to compliment the visuals. Granted “All style and no substance” isn’t exactly complimentary. And you’ll notice that even I said “mostly” in my own compliment to the film. It’s not perfect. Partially due to when it came out…in that transitional period between moving from practical, in-frame special effects to CGI. So, some of the compositing suffers from this and the few times CG is used, the resolution that we’re used to isn’t there. Lastly, if you’re checking the film out on blu-ray, you’ll also notice a DISTINCT change in film quality during the CGI effects shots…the film of the live elements becomes very noticeably grainy. Listening to the special features on Shout Factory’s recent collector’s edition release, one learns that the effects team responsible had the opportunity to do pioneering work on making these CGI effects anamorphic. While many factors may have led to the decision not to do this, remember, this was when, outside the theatrical release, the most common home viewing format was Pan-and-Scan VHS…so I’d suspect that with the effects team figuring that their effort would go largely unseen and Universal not wanting to fund something that was only going to be seen by what would probably the minority audience (the moviegoer), they likely decided to focus on the home video market. The use of translights (large murals used on sets as a background) is also noticeable…but ultimately forgivable. After all, New York City of the 1930’s has long since gone…and honestly, I found it helped add to the “Pulp” feel of the movie…a suitable nod to the Shadow’s source material.
The aspect of the film that drew the most fire was the story…and personally, I don’t really see it. But maybe that’s the wanna-be comic book historian in me talking. You see, if you’re feeling industrious and decide to do the research, go back and take a look at some of the comics in the 30’s. Now, true, the Shadow was born in the “Pulps”…not comics, but comics and comic creators back then did draw their inspiration from the Pulps, so you’re looking back at the same “family tree” as it were, and as such, there will indeed be a “family resemblance”. Both of them were disposable entertainment, created by people who, at the time…well, remember, this is during the Great Depression, these are people trying to crank out as much material as possible…just so they can eat! So we’re not exactly looking at deep, sophisticated stories here. Instead, we have simple adventure stories, easily defined heroes and villains with little to no complexity and, I include it here since it is present in the movie, a sense of rah-rah patriotism that, while hokey in our more cynical times, was vital for that time and place. David Koepp’s screenplay does add a little complexity to the characters, mainly to the Shadow himself, Lamont Cranston, but not a lot to the other characters. And again, I point you back to those times…while I haven’t listened to radio plays from back then, I can tell you in reading the comics of that time as well as seeing some of the movie serials from the 40s, Koepp’s decision and writing style embraces those roots, asking viewers to come to the movie on its terms…to go back to a more simplistic time. So we get lines like “Well, you know I’m gonna stop you,” and “Hey! That’s the U S of A you’re talking about there.” There’s the “His Girl Friday” interplay between Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane that again harkens back to the golden age of Hollywood. And that tongue-in-cheek attitude carries throughout the entire feature.
Ultimately, I think Batman proved to be the biggest stumbling block to reviewers. Let me see if I can explain, because it’s very similar to what happened to Disney’s unjustly maligned John Carter (yes, I’ll be defending that later on!). Even though the character and stories of the Shadow largely informed the concept of the Bat-Man, it was Batman who managed to survive and thrive in the following years, whereas the Shadow’s popularity would wane (or should I make the pun and say “Wayne”!). And while the Shadow never truly went away, I can tell you that if I went into the middle of a grocery store and asked loudly in a sinister voice “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”…well, I can’t say I like my chances getting the appropriate response. Whereas if I went into the “da na na na na na na na” of the 60s TV show, I’d bet I’d get more than just a few “Batmaaaaaaan!”s. So, during what essentially is a pop culture coma, it turns out that the offspring is mistaken as the original, and vice versa. After all, it was Batman that first arrived on theatre screens back in 1989 and again in 92 before Universal felt that the Shadow, the original, would be worthy of a shot onscreen as well. In that span, from the 1930s to the 1990s…approximately 60 years…well, people forget. And it’s safe to say the Shadow was all but forgotten. So when he attempted his return, he was mistaken as the knock-off.
Lastly, one cannot but praise the cast and it’s a great ensemble cast: Alec Baldwin while he was still leading-man material and not crazy and bloated, Peter Boyle as his right hand man and taxi driver, Penelope Ann Miller looking exactly as the 30s or 40s starlet that would have played the role back then, yet never dumbing her character down either…fully capable of standing toe to toe with Baldwin (and even saving him at one point!), Ian McKellen as the bumbling, absent-minded (and color blind) scientist and Tim Curry as the main villain’s buffoonish and opportunistic American henchman. Each one of those names is recognizable (well, okay, honestly I don’t think I’ve seen anything else Penelope Ann Miller has done since…or before for that matter). Crap…I forgot Jonathan Winters also! See? Again, lots of names. I’d comment on John Lone…but I’ve never seen him in anything before or since either, but he too plays the main villain well: dangerous, but not without humor. In fact, you can tell he’s enjoying the part (as most actors do with villains). He does a great job in playing a barbarian pretending to be civilized, all the while wielding a power that no man but one can match.
To close, Universal was pushing this to be a franchise. I actually remember the toys that came out with this. But it was not to be…and that’s a shame. Because, while the movie works both in its own context and in the context of the source material’s origin, in the post-Batman 90s where every studio tried its hand at dark night comic book vigilantes, the Shadow came to us with both confusion and fatigue setting in to the target audience. I urge you to take a look for yourself, or if you’ve already seen it, then give it a second chance.
Oh…I nearly forgot. I do have one significant bitch with the movie. It might just seem like a minor nit-pick, but in our first trip to the Cobalt Club, where Lamont and Margo first meet and dance to…is that fucking Kenny G in the background??? I watched the end credits…yup…Kenny fucking G. Confirming to all you kids out there that yes, pure evil can time travel…tainting everything good you’ve ever loved or cared about. You’ve been warned.