So, I was lucky enough to be able to retire my old CRT TV and upgrade to hi-def. And what better way to do that than to purchase a pair of guilty pleasures...two films that I always seem to watch as a double feature...The Shadow and The Rocketeer.
I love the concept of superhero period pieces. Taking a superhero and dropping them into a different time, and a different place, and adapting them to that time. I'm glad that some superhero films are attempting to embrace this. I love that they decided to set Captain America during World War II, as true to his origins. I love that X-Men: First Class was a prequel set in the 1960s. (In fact, my only complaint about X-Men: First Class is it didn't quite feel 60s enough.) And so, in the early 1990s, we were blessed with not one, but two, superhero films set in the 1930s...The Shadow and The Rocketeer. Hence, why I always double-feature them.
Rather appropriate, too, as I originally saw The Shadow as part of a double-feature. School had just finished for the year, and Mom felt like rewarding me and my sister for having such great report cards. I wanted to see The Shadow, my sister wanted to see The Lion King. So my Mom said, "Why not both?" and we saw The Lion King in the afternoon and The Shadow in the evening.
I do remember The Shadow being one of the more heavily-hyped summer blockbusters back in 1994. I specifically remember taping and watching over and over again a special episode of Entertainment Tonight where they interviewed the cast and went behind the scenes and all kinds of good stuff like that. I had just started collecting action figures, too, so I still have a mint-in-package Shadow action figure lying around somewhere.
The Shadow, for those who may not remember, rose to prominence not in comics, but in the pulp fiction novels of the 1930s, and then was popularized through the legendary radio show where he was played by Orson Wells. The Shadow is, in reality, Lamont Cranston, "wealthy young man about town," as they described him in the intro to the radio show. But at night, he becomes the Shadow, and hunts down all manner of evildoers. On the radio show, he was accompanied by Margot Lane, one of the few who knew of his true identity. In the pulp fiction novels, he was accompanied by a vast network of agents whom he'd contact for assistance. For the film, they use both.
While traveling abroad, Cranston/The Shadow picked up his superpower: the ability to cloud men's minds. What does this mean, exactly? Well, in the film, it's pretty much Jedi mind tricks, and the ability to turn himself invisible.
In the film, they dramatize this a bit more. We learn that Cranston amassed his fortune in the opium trade in the Far East, where he was a rather brutal opium warlord known as Ying Ko. But then he's abducted by a religious order who've senses that, deep down inside, Crantson's good and evil sides have always been at battle. So this religious order decides to train him how to use the evil within him to fight the evil around him, and set him on the path to redemption. And this, his training begins to turn him into the Shadow. Once ready to fight evil, he returns home to New York City.
But, of course, our hero needs a villain, and we get one in the form of Shiwan Khan, the last direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and determined to follow in his ancestor's footsteps of ruling the world. Of course, that religious order tried to train him too, but in the case of Shiwan Khan, his evil side won out. And know, with powers even greater than the Shadow's, Khan is off to conquer the world, starting with New York.
From there, it's your pretty standard superhero stuff as the Shadow sets out to uncover Khan's plot and and stop the villain before it's too late. But, Khan remembers Cranston's past glory as Ying Ko and occasionally tries to lure Cranston back to the dark side. Actually, watching this again tonight, I couldn't help but see a few similarities to the first Spider-Man movie. In each, there are exactly two scenes where the villain tries to tempt the hero over to the dark side, only for the hero to heroically turn down the offer. And, in each film, the scenes play out very similarily to each other. It should come as no surprise that each film was written by David Koepp, who in addition to The Shadow and Spider-Man, also wrote Jurassic Park and Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (Spielberg loves the guy.)
Lots of interesting talent behind the scenes, such as director Russel Mulcahy, who's biggest and best-known film is probably still the first Highlander. Mulcahy did have a bit of infamy, being one of the first film directors who cut his teeth doing music videos. He doesn't do much theatrically anymore, doing mostly television now.
Alec Baldwin is Lamont Cranston/The Shadow, and he is pretty good in the role. He sets the tone for the film, as he does it with enough of a smirk, that the whole film doesn't take itself too seriously. That's what superhero films are seriously missing these days. They lack that sense of fun. But not in The Shadow. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but it's not campy, either. It's lighthearted, which is what helps to make it enjoyable. I want more lighthearted superhero films.
Margot Lane is beefed up a little bit. In this film, she's gifted with some psychic abilities that make her immune to the Shadow's Jedi mind tricks, and is even able to read Cranston's mind. So, of course, this means Cranston gains a sidekick...and an equal to be a romantic partner. Too bad we never got a sequel. It would have been cool to see Cranston helping Margot to develop her powers and turn her into a hero in her own right. Penelope Ann Miller plays her, and she works very hard to evoke the glamour of the era.
I do have to agree with Leonard Maltin in his famous movie guide: "What a waste of a great supporting cast!" Some amazing character actors filling out the roles. Legendary comic Johnathon Winters plays Commisioner Wainwright, who just happens to be Cranston's uncle. A before-he-was-famous Ian McKellen play Margot's father, a scientist whose discoveries Khan needs in his scheme, and whose kidnapping leads Margot to seek out the Shadow's help. And the always awesome Tim Curry is Farley Claymore, the assistant to Margot's father who becomes Khan's henchman.
And watching it in hi-def tonight on my new TV, and on Blu-Ray, I've got to say that, visually, this film is fan-freakin'-tastic. Computer animation for special effects was still in its infancy, so it's used sparingly in the film. Lots of more traditional effects in the film, such as matte paintings and model work. Ye gods, the model work. Fantastic fly-throughs of 1930s New York that would be shamelessly ripped off by Joel Schumacher a year later for Batman Forever.
The Shadow was an acknowledged inspiration for Batman, way back when Batman was created in 1939, and I do know that when the film first came out, a few critics dismissed it as a Batman-wannabe. But if you give it a chance, you'll find it's fun and pretty entertaining.
And, before I go, this film is still home to one of my favourite snippets of Hollywood dialogue ever.