Friday, October 19, 2007

The Shadow (1994)

Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for the Shadow (1994) follow below.

I love this movie.

Like all movies, it has its flaws and I'll get to those, but overall, this is one of my favorites. First of all, it's set in the 1930s, which is always a seller for me, but not for the general movie-going population. Just look at the Rocketeer's, The Phantom's, Sky Captain's, and The Shadow's box office returns. The only movies set in this period that seem to do well feature Indiana Jones.

The movie also features one of my favorite old-time radio characters. The Shadow first appeared on radio as the host of a mystery series called Detective Stories, but found his own way in The Shadow Magazine. He was later given his own radio show, which ran from 1937 until 1954. The Shadows who appeared in the pulps and on radio were very different. The Shadow of the pulps used a pair of .45s and dispensed justice with the aid of several agents who owed the Shadow their lives; on radio, the Shadow was able to "cloud men's minds," rendering himself invisible. He was usually only accompanied by Margo Lane and occasionally his driver, Shrevvy. Both characters employed a mysterious and intimidating laugh.

The 1994 movie, starring Alec Baldwin, used an amalgam of the two different Shadows. This one has agents and .45s, but also turns invisible and is accompanied by Margo Lane, played by Penelope Ann Miller.

We are given a back story for the Shadow, who begins the movie as Ying Ko, an opium magnate in Tibet. He is kidnaped and reformed by the Tulku, a mysterious sorceror-type who identifies Ying Ko by his real name, Lamont Cranston. The Tulku reforms Cranston and teaches him the psychic abilities he will need to clean up New York City.

In New York, Cranston (as the Shadow) saves the life of Roy Tam, a metallurgist working at NYU. Tam becomes one of the Shadow's agents. Cranston meets with his Uncle Wainwright (Jonathan Winters, one of my favorite comedians) at the Cobalt Club. Wainwright is the police commissioner who is about to put a task force on the Shadow's trail until Cranston uses strong mental suggestion to hold him off. At the same time professor Reinhardt Lane, Margo Lane's father, played by Ian McKellan, is developing a beryllium sphere, a key component to what Tam calls "an implosive explosive sub-moleclular device," which Cranston renames "an atomic bomb." Professor Lane falls under the mental domination of Shiwan Khan, the last descendant of Genghis Khan, who seems to be bent on taking over the world. Shiwan Khan has the same abilities as the Shadow, which makes him a formidable opponent.

After Shiwan Khan sends Margo Lane to kill the Shadow, she tries to shoot Lamont Cranston, whom she discovers upon being awakened from her trance, is the Shadow. Together, they set out to defeat the plans of Shiwan Khan and save New York from being held hostage. I won't spoil any more, just in case you haven't seen this gem.

One of the key reasons for my enjoyment of this film is the actors. Alec Baldwin is great, and the scenes in Tibet feature some actors who were very busy in the 80s and 90s. Al Leong (seen at right) is in every good action movie of the period. He was in "Big Trouble in Little China," "Lethal Weapon," "Action Jackson," "Die Hard," "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (where he played, ironically, Genghis Khan), "Beverly Hills Cop III," "The Replacement Killers," "Godzilla," and "The Scorpion King." How's that for a resume'? Also in the scene are James Hong and Arsenio "Sonny" Trinidad. In the museum scene, you can see Ethan "Neelix" Phillips and ALF's dad, Max Wright. Moe Shrevnitz, the Shadow's driver is played by the inimitable Peter Boyle.

Stealing the show for me was Tim Curry, who played Farley Claymore, Professor Lane's assistant. He has a moment in this movie where, I swear, he was the Joker. He spins around in a circle, firing a Thompson submachine gun and cackling maniacally. I was sold right then and there that Tim Burton had made a mistake casting Jack Nicholson in 1989.

Another great part of this movie was set design. I love art deco, and this movie is chock full of it. From the Cobalt Club to the Hotel Monolith, the classic architecture of New York is extrapolated into the sets.

The Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack is flawless as well. It's mysterious, dark, and has jazz for the club scenes. The Shadow's anthem is heroic and haunting all at the same time.

A selling point for me but perhaps not others is that Neal Adams did the key marketing art. The poster and the toy art was based on this Adams original, which is for sale on his website:

There were a few sour notes in this movie. The Shadow engaging in Spider-Man-like banter while he fights Khan's Monguls rang false to me. After he lands on a bad guy, he quips, "Next time, you get to be on top." That line just didn't seem Shadow-like at all. But there are more than enough really cool scenes to make up for it. My favorite has to be the scene on the bridge where the Shadow saves Roy Tam's life.

We had a surround sound system built into the walls of our house when we had it built in 2000. When the Shadow "appears" invisibly on the bridge, his laugh literally echoes all around the living room. It comes from everywhere and from nowhere. When the bad guy fires a machine gun in every direction trying to hit the Shadow, the bullets and ricochets also bounce all over the room. I show this scene on our DVD player whenever someone visits for the first time, just to show off the surround sound. It's just too cool. Unfortunately, this movie's DVD release was limited to full screen only.

Another reason I love this movie is the way that I saw it in 1994. My buddy Doug and I went to see it at the State Theater in downtown South Bend. The State was one of those old-fashioned theaters where people used to dress up to "go to the pictures" back in the old days. It was opulent and beautiful even then. The atmosphere made the experience that much more enjoyable.

This movie was just built to have sequels made. I wish it had done better at the box office. I also hope that at some point, there is a more elaborate widescreen DVD release with some special features. The current DVD has virtually nothing.

I have also read that Sam Raimi has obtained the rights to make a new Shadow movie. I hope it's better than Spider-Man 3.

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