(Today’s 25th Anniversary celebration of The Shadow is brought to you by Amy Bilancini -Ed.)
My husband (John, you know him, the guy who runs this joint) and I don’t fight over much but we have two primary points of contention in our marriage. First, he insists on pronouncing “Worcester” like “Wore-Chester” and that it’s “Hay-ver-hill” and “Pee-Body” not “Havrill” and “Peabiddy”. Second, he believes The Phantom (1996) to be better than The Shadow (1994). Now, reasonable minds might disagree on the former but I am here to tell you he is dead wrong on the latter: The Shadow is the vastly superior movie and if you don’t agree with me now, you will by the end of this article. And if you’re still not convinced after all of the hundreds of words I’ve typed, well, you probably can’t say “Leicester” correctly either.
Alec Baldwin plays Lamont Craston, a Bruce Wayne-type who took control of the opium trade in Tibet post-World War I. In Tibet, Lamont is shirtless and high 90% of the time with an impeccable head of hair (something Billy Zane knows nothing about) (On the contrary, before he started shaving it Billy Zane had excellent hair -Ed.) Eventually Cranston’s sinful ways catch up with him and Tulku, a child-monk-type, gives him a chance at redemption by taking up man’s struggle against evil. He learns some mind control powers after getting attacked by Phurba, a magic blade, and thus becomes The Shadow. He is sent home to “that most wretched lair of villainy we know as New York City” and immediately runs into Mr. Sparkle.
No, I’m serious, the guy that the Shadow shoots out of cement shoes and recruits into his posse is Sab Shimono, the voice of Mr. Sparkle from The Simpsons. Then the Shadow and Mr. Sparkle climb into Peter Boyle’s cab and our movie truly begins.
As an aside, the make-up department for this movie deserved an Oscar for the nose prosthetic Alec Baldwin had to wear. It looks cheesy when well lit but it is a great piece of work to create the iconic profile of the Shadow.
The plot of the movie is basically that Max Wright (RIP the Dad From ALF) and his boss somehow release Shiwan Khan – the last living descendant of Ghengis Khan – from his sarcophagus (not sure how he is the last living descendant if he’s in a sarcophagus but OK) and now Lamont has to defeat Khan before Khan unleashes a massive explosion on NYC. A kind of “atomic bomb” as Lamont so astutely observes decades before the atom bomb becomes a symbol of American might or villainy or both.
I’ve already established that we have Sab Shimono and Peter Boyle and Max Wright in this film but would you imagine they are not the ONLY superstars in this cinematographic feat? Lamont’s uncle, Police Commissioner Barth, is played by Jonathan Winters. James Hong shows up at the beginning of the movie only to get murdered! Ian McKellen and Tim Curry are scientists! Larry Hankin (Carl from Billy Madison)! Abraham Benrubi (Jerry from ER)! Who does The Phantom have? MAGA lovin’ Kristy Swanson that’s who. (We haven’t all forgotten you, Treat Williams -Ed.)
The aesthetics of the movie are incredible. It is a full art-deco love letter to New York City but without going full Tim Burton in Batman. Not that Batman isn’t fantastic in its own right but considering how hyper-stylized Burton can be and how much The Shadow invites that type of vision, it is nice to see the director had some restraint in the design of the film. The Shadow is a great example of 90s genre movie that takes itself seriously but not too seriously. It is obviously a bit of a goofy premise but it is presented genuinely and strikes a balance between its more ridiculous elements and the good versus evil story it tells.
Speaking of Batman, I don’t think young Alec Baldwin would have been a better Batman than Michael Keaton, but it would have been interesting to see him play Bruce Wayne when it was “age appropriate”. There’s little room for comedy in The Shadow but Baldwin has some good comedic instincts and watching him play a less-serious Lamont could have been fun.
In the end, Lamont and Margo (Penelope Ann Miller) – the only person immune to his Shadow powers and a damn fine investigator in her own right – thwart Shiwan Khan, save the city and live their own happily ever after (although Ian McKellen almost blows up the city because he’s color blind and nearly snips the wrong wire but Margo sets him straight and gets to be the true heroine of the film).
So there you have it, it’s been 25 years since The Shadow graced the big screen and introduced a new generation to one of the most prolific superheroes of our time. Without The Shadow there would be no Batman, no V for Vendetta, no Darkwing Duck!
The Shadow is clearly far superior to The Phantom. It’s not even a question at this point, right?
But neither can compare to the absolutely perfect Dick Tracy.