100: The Phantom – 1996
Starring: Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams and Caterine Zeta Jones
Director: Simon Wincer
Screenplay: Jeffrey Boam
I love a good pulp adventure, there is something so simple yet enjoyable about them. Give me an all action hero, a dastardly villain and a herd of expendable henchmen and I am pretty certain to be entertained. As a child pulp adventure films fuelled my imagination and as an adult a good pulp adventure can give me a nostalgic glow even if the film is new, it is the spirit of it that speaks to my childhood. If I allowed films less than ten years old on the list the Captain America: The First Avenger would almost certainly be on there for that very reason but as it stands I don’t so it isn’t.
The Phantom is certainly not a perfect film but it is a hell of a lot of fun. At its centre is a wonderful performance from Billy Zane. At the time Zane had a unique look which was somehow contemporary for the 90s but at the same time he could pull off the look of a matinee idol. Something that would lead him to cementing his place in cinema villain history a year later in Titanic. Zane worked out for a whole year in preparation and it shows, no rubber muscle suits needed here, but Zane brings more than just looking the part. He is effortlessly charming, always polite and is also aware of the fact that as The Phantom he gets to do a lot of cool stuff. At one point during his rescue of Kristy Swanson’s Diana Palmer he is himself is saved from imminent danger by his trusty wolf Devil. Diana sees Devil and exclaims “Your Dog’s a wolf.” to which The Phantom responds “I know” with a big smile on his face. Having a wolf who helps you fight bad guys is awesome and he can’t hide his glee at getting to show that off to someone. He is a very likeable, handsome hero who manages to make The Phantom’s trademark purple suit look good on film which is no mean feat in itself.
What helps elevate this film to the point where it makes it to the list is the superb performance from Treat Williams as the villainous Xander Drax. Williams is one of those actors who I wish had made a bigger breakthrough. He always gives everything to his performance but he can be an acquired taste. Williams is a joy as Drax from the moment he saunters in screen. With his pinstripe suit, pencil moustache and insincere smile he looks like he’s stepped straight from the pages of a 30s comic. What helps mark Drax out as more interesting is that underneath his smarmy, public persona there is such an odd combination of childlike wonder and sadistic malice. The scene where he blinds the librarian for betraying him has a chilling build. It starts with Drax on the phone toying with a microscope and blades shoot out of the eyepieces. We as the audience now know that this microscope exists and what it does. From the moment the librarian walks in the clock begins to count down to it being used. We know it’s coming and we’re just watching Drax toy with him before it happens. Then after it’s happened he just casually breaks the librarian’s glasses with a chirpy “Well, I guess you won’t be needing these anymore.” Yet he gets so excited in his quest to unite the Skulls of Touganda. He tells the police commissioner that he’s going to the legendary Devil’s Vortex like he’s a child enthusiastically telling someone about his upcoming holiday.
If there is one thing more enjoyable than watching Xander Drax usher people out of a museum exhibit with the promise of cake or discovering that Sala has polished the ceremonial skulls with toothpaste, then it is seeing him interact with The Great Kabai Sengh on the hidden island of the Sengh Brotherhood. I’ve always been a fan of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, he’s always a charming and memorable presence no matter how large a role he has and this is one of his best. He clearly relishes getting his teeth into some really great dialogue “Now let me see…When was the last time we had visitors here below the ocean, deep in the bowels of this uncharted volcanic island? Never! Congratulations! You pathetic doomed fools are the first.” His interaction with Drax is priceless with Drax totally failing to take the threat of the pirates seriously “Think of it this way. You represent the old guard of grizzled scallywags and Peg-leg Petes. I stand for the new order of things, modern and up-to-date.” and generally being exasperated that he has to talk to them at all.
This film also has a really strong supporting cast with Catherine Zeta-Jones as roguish femme fatale pilot Sala, James Remar as Quill, Drax’s leading henchman and member of the ‘I killed The Phantom” club, and the late great Patrick McGoohan as the ghost of Kit’s father. McGoohan appears to be having fun in a role that asks little of him as he plays in scenes with Zane. There is also the added joy of mentally picturing the 76 year old McGoohan in the Phantom costume.
Then there’s the tagline, oh that ludicrous tagline. The enduring imagine of all the various posters for The Phantom is not the perfectly good artwork but rather the words ‘SLAM EVIL’ in large, urgent letters taking up more space than the title. For years this never made any sense as it is not a phrase that is used at any point in the film. It wasn’t until after I appeared on a podcast about The Phantom that someone cleared up the mystery for me. The film had struck a promotional deal with Pepsi who in the mid 90s were marketing 1 litre ‘Big Slam’ bottles and someone thought that it would be a good idea to add ‘SLAM EVIL’ to the poster. Knowing that it was the product of a misguided marketing campaign only made me love it even more for how stupid it was. It is a phrase that has stuck around, whenever I have seen this film discussed anywhere sooner or later someone will say ‘SLAM EVIL’ and it is always said with affection.
The Phantom is a slice of rollicking pulp adventure that, while earnest, doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t spend the whole film winking at the camera. The action is well staged, the performances are universally fun and it is an entertaining way to pass 100 minutes. I have watched this film many times over, I always enjoy it and this won’t be the last pulp adventure film on the list. If you never seen it or haven’t watched it in a long time then it is well worth your time seeking out and giving a chance.