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A Paternity Leave Review of "The Shadow" (1994)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

If you're looking for an action adventure that rides on the coattails of the 1989 Batman and cynically exploits the mid-'90s fascination with long-forgotten radio serials and comic books without actually generating much suspense and therefore becoming an unintentional comedy, I recommend the 1996 version of The Phantom.  However, if you're looking for another film that does all of the same stuff with (what appears to be) a self-aware sense of humor that elevates it to an actually enjoyable level, then The Shadow is an excellent choice.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Briefly Talk About Superhero Movies (Again)

Last week I wrote about the 2004 The Punisher.  I mentioned that it was one of the first attempts by studios to release a superhero movie in the "dark and gritty" vein rather than the "silly theatrics" camp.

After thinking about it a little longer, I realized that wasn't totally fair.  There had been attempts at "dark and gritty" before, but they had always been paired with lighthearted antics and costumes to brighten the overall mood.  One of the best and most successful examples was Batman, which injected its franchise with the dourness that remains its signature even today.  But Batman was not a gritty movie.  Its villain was also its comic relief and the movie has a smirk about everything it does.  I still maintain that superhero movies didn't completely lose that smirk until 2004.

But thinking about Batman got me thinking about the miscellaneous failed attempts at superhero movies from the early '90s, and that got me thinking about The Shadow.  It's one of the oddest entries into the superhero genre.  And while it kind of disappeared after an unimpressive theatrical run, I get the feeling it's garnered a bit of a cult following in the last twenty years.

Naturally, that makes it the perfect movie for me to write about on this blog.

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is an opium kingpin living in Mongolia in the 1920s.  His dark and shady criminal history is kind of glossed over after he is abducted by the Tulku, a quasi-religious figure.  The Tulku demands that Cranston transform into a force of good and trains him for seven years in the art of clouding minds.

Then Cranston goes to New York City to live out his life as a playboy by day and crimefighter by night.  One of the many things the movie never explains is where he got his money.  Did he get to keep all of his earnings as an opium magnate?  If so, does the Tulku really approve of that?  Seems like part of atoning for your sins would be that you surrender all of your ill-gained goods, but I guess they figured the ends justified the means.

Anyway, Cranston gets involved with Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), a telepath who is unaffected by his powers and basically just spends the rest of the movie being annoying.  She's mainly important to the plot because her father, Margo's Dad (Ian McKellen), has mysteriously disappeared.

Shortly thereafter, Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a descendant of Genghis Khan and fellow mind-clouder, comes to Cranston and suggests that they partner to take over the world.  This raises an important question: why do you want to take over the world?  Khan's whole thing is that he wants to finish what his great great great (repeat many times) grandfather started, but is that really what you want?  Being the leader of the world just sounds like a pain in the ass.  It's really just a glorified political position, and if you don't keep everybody happy, then you end up having to fight them all the time and that's just really exhausting.  If all you want is power or money, why not start a business or become a corrupt cop or something?  At least then you can actually sit around on your pile of money and have orgies all day without every other person on the planet trying to kill you.

Anyway. Cranston rejects Khan's offer and later finds out that Khan kidnapped Margo's dad in order to force him to build an atom bomb so that he could threaten NYC and, through some magic, conquer the world.

Thus Cranston must take up his Shadow disguise and save the day.  Time for some mind clouding.

The Bit Where I Discuss Identity Confusion

Man, the Shadow has some of the most nebulous powers ever conceived, doesn't he?  Sure, he can turn invisible and he's practiced some fighting moves, but what are his powers, really?  He has the ability to "see what evil lurks in the hearts of men."

...okay?  Isn't that just kind of what police officers do?  How exactly is that a power?  "I can tell when somebody's up to no good.  I can't really fight them - in fact, when I do fight, I often get my ass kicked, so I usually just run away and try to be threatening.  But I know they're bad.  Even before they try to kill me."

The Shadow's other main power is "clouding minds," which is such a cop-out phrase.  It doesn't really mean anything, so naturally it means everything.  Is it mind control?  Sure.  Implantation of false memories?  Yeah, why not.  Turning invisible?  Not sure how a clouded mind is somehow unable to understand reflected light, but, okay, let's do that, too.

On top of that, the movie's pacing end editing don't really give you a good sense of his abilities.  After the introductory Tibetan Pimp scene, our first exposure is a night-time scene on a bridge where three gangsters are threatening an innocent victim.  The Shadow intervenes and saves the day.  This is one of those important but kind of boring scenes in a movie where you set the tone and rules of who your hero is, what he does, and how he does it.

The good news is that you get to see him turn... well, not really "invisible," but cloudy, anyway.  That part is great.  You also hear him taunt the gangster by saying, "I know what you did" and "You killed that cop" et cetera, et cetera, which drives the gangster into madness.  Up until that moment, the scene is actually kind of cool. You might be thinking that the Shadow is a sort of physical manifestation of a man's conscience; he follows evildoers around and manipulates them until they either kill themselves or surrender to the authorities.  That would be an interesting take on a superhero and a fascinating movie.

But then the Shadow just starts punching people.  And the way he manhandles the gangster - which includes holding him over the bridge by the ankle with a single hand and throwing him through the window of his car - means that he must have super-strength.

So... what the hell's the point of the other powers?  Are you a brooding, thoughtful guy who contemplates morality and lurks in the shadows, or are you a super-strong invisible dude who punches bad guys in the head?

After the fight is over, he then tells the victim that he now owes a favor, and the Shadow will call on him later.  They hop in a taxi that's being driven by another former victim who doesn't even really take the Shadow seriously anymore.  And now we've introduced two more sources of confusion: one of the Shadow's "powers" is that he has a wide support network throughout the city, and we can't tell anymore if he's supposed to be dark and gritty or kind of comical.

Then, after all of that... we find out he's a rich playboy with endless wealth!  C'mon, already.  He's like Nightcrawler, Darkman, the Thing, Jean Gray, and Batman all rolled into one?  Seriously?

All of this adds up to a hard time remembering what exactly the Shadow even is.  If you tried to explain him to a friend based only on this movie, you'd have a hell of a time getting past the costume.  "He's this guy who has mind powers that are kinda like hypnosis, only not really because nobody volunteers for it, so he sorta just projects mind control, but not anything that would actually control people, and then he punches them. Also he's rich."

You can have a bunch of crazy, inexplicable powers if they all tie into a central conceit.  Spider-Man, for example.  I've been informed that he can do everything a spider can, so I'm not surprised when he does random shit as long as it's vaguely spider-like.  Or, if you want to keep things simple, then you can just focus on one or two specific powers.  The Hulk is big and smashes things.  Cyclops has laser eyes that shoot things.  The Punisher is angry and shoots things with guns.

You look at those characters and then you turn back to the Shadow - and he just feels like a mess.  The movie feels like it's going to pull random crap out of a hat at every moment and say, "Oh, by the way guys, the Shadow can do this, too."

It makes it hard to take the movie seriously.  But it does feel like he's an effective parody of superheroes, and that's why I like the movie.  It's pretty funny.

Now I Wonder About Comedy

I'm convinced that this movie would have done much better at the box office if the marketing played up its comedy a little more.  It clearly can't be taken seriously.

Not to say they didn't try.  The Shadow is one of those films that exists right at the cusp of "okay movie with some good jokes" and "laughably bad movie."  The visuals, story, and plot beats would all suggest that it's meant to be played straight, despite having a light tone - similar to The Rocketeer of 1991.  But whereas The Rocketeer was a genuinely great movie that perfectly balanced its pulpy origins against a menacing villain, The Shadow comes across as uneven in ways that might not be totally intentional.

Part of the problem is the villain.  The Rocketeer pits its hero up against the Nazis, which are pretty much guaranteed to hit the right note.  The Shadow pits its hero against a descendant of Genghis Khan.  Not even the actual Genghis Khan.  And yes, I get that it would be weird to have Genghis Khan in your movie as a villain since he's been dead for 800 years, but you coulda found a way.  Maybe have a cult that's going to revive Khan through magic or some bullshit.  That would have at least had some gravitas to it, right?

But The Shadow doesn't do that.  Instead, the villain is just some asshole who found out he has Khan in his family tree and learned a bunch of nonsense hypnosis powers.  Where's the terror in that?  Millions of people are direct descendants of Genghis Khan.  Hell, I'm a descendant of Genghis Khan and my greatest power is finding new ways to be unhappy.  How am I supposed to watch this movie and do anything but laugh at the bad guy?

But the bigger issue is that I don't think the actors, director, or writer agreed on what tone they were trying to get across.  Alec Baldwin and Tim Curry ham it up as much as they can, which leads to some terrific offbeat moments, but Penelope Ann Miller seems to be playing the movie totally straight - and, I hate to say it, poorly.  The writer, David Koepp, stated in interviews that he was trying to recreate his love of the radio serial, so it's clear that he was being sincere with his script.  But Russell Mulcahy, probably best known for directing Highlander, doesn't give much weight to the moments that should hit hard and he glosses through all the exposition as if it's an afterthought.

Normally I would chalk this kind of stuff up to incompetence.  You do this with a $400,000 budget and you end up with College Kickboxers.  But all the people who worked on this film are well-respected professionals and I have a hard time believing they all screwed up.

So I'm inclined to think the comedy was purposeful.  It just feels too much like a parody of adventure films.  The explanatory text scroll that doesn't show up until ten minutes into the movie....  The way nobody really gives a shit that Margo can read Cranston's mind.... The goofy-ass Shadow nose and community theater laugh....

If this was all an accident, then they made it look pretty damn good.