Meet the new superhero team of Outside The Frame. We are a team of highly nerdy and enthusiastic ninja warriors who seek to defend movies that are indefensible. We are hardcore. Come along with us on our quest to discover if our love for movies that perhaps shouldn’t be loved makes us falter in our opinion or even win others round.
GABBY: This marks our first entry and we will be kicking off with Brett’s Choice, The Phantom.
What made you gravitate towards The Phantom Brett? What is the main reason you want to defend it?
BRETT: I saw The Phantom opening night as I used to read the daily comic. The Phantom has a pretty good (not great) script, but if Russell Mulcahy had directed it, I think it wouldn’t have most the problems it does. I wrote a review of the movie once upon a time.
JEREMY: Like Brett, I saw The Phantom opening day. The Phantom was maybe my most anticipated movie that summer, despite knowing little about the character. Thanks to the Indiana Jones, I’ve always been a sucker for modern reinterpretations of pulps and classic movie serials. If you make an adventure movie set it in the ‘30s or ‘40s, I’m there.
I wasn’t let down by The Phantom, nor did I love it. It was perfectly acceptable to me at the time, and a little less than that watching it two decades later.
BRETT: What I want to know is what did everyone think about The Phantom’s costume? Did we dig on the skull designs on the tights? I didn’t at the time but they’re grown on me.
GABBY: That outfit is rather bold, purple is an odd choice, very bright and looks incredibly strange out of context, but it certainly makes his presence felt in the hues of green and brown. Maybe I just really like Billy Zane’s enthusiasm for his role that the outfit being kind of awful just didn’t bother me that much whilst watching the film. When you look at it in screencaps though, it just looks very silly.
JEREMY: I’m on the fence about the Phantom’s wardrobe decisions, especially the skulls. When it comes to skull fashion accessories – even when it’s part of a superhero costume – my experience is less is more.
And it’s hard to say where that particular shade of purple blends in the least, the jungles of Bangalla or the Big Apple.
BRETT: The purple tights are because the distributor demanded it back in 1930 or so. He was supposed to have gray tights, but that didn’t pop in the Sunday color comics. And I do find it interesting that they just straight up gave the Phantom tights instead of some kind of padded leather/latex/molded plastic thing like they were giving most the heroes during the ‘90s.
JEREMY: It’s the first time I remember an actor, not a former athlete, bulking up for a superhero costume. And the outfit’s okay. Billy Zane pulls it off. I don’t know what’s wrong or missing, but it’s one pass away from being right. It’s one of the better examples of the general “Well, it’s good enough…” shrug I get from Simon Wincer’s directorial decisions.
BRETT: I have this feeling that if they’d doubled the budget, and hired someone who could direct with a little more skill, the movie would have that essential something that it’s missing. It’s really hard to put your finger on the problem, because on paper, everything is there. It *should* work, and in places it really does, but at the end it falls flat and we can never seem to really put our finger on why.
JEREMY: My problem is almost every directorial choice is odd or lifeless. There are two moments that sum up this movie for me.
The first is when the Phantom drops in on Diana (Kristy Swanson) and Sala (a pre-fame Catherine Zeta-Jones) and makes his introductions to both characters. The banter in Jeffrey Boam’s script is fine, the actors are game, but the staging and editing of that scene never come together. Everything’s a beat off.
The second is during the fight on the dry-docked pirate ship (after watching this again, I now plan to retire and live out my days in a dry-docked pirate ship inside a mysterious cave on a tropical island). We’ve established there are pirates, functional cannons, and sharks swimming in a moat surrounding this pirate ship domicile. In the middle of the fight, a pirate drops one of the magical MacGuffin skulls. The skull rolls a few feet, hits a wall on the deck of the ship, and rests in a safe and easy-to-reach position that’s, like, FIVE FEET AWAY FROM A MOAT WITH SHARKS IN IT!
It’s not hard, people. The equation is simple: MacGuffin + sharks in a moat = awesome. Seriously… it’s that easy.
BRETT: Yeah, the whole bit at the end with the pirates feels like they wanted to use it as the basis of a Universal Studios Stunt Show. There is a severe clunkiness to the directing. We may really do need to drop this on the shoulders of bad direction.
I watched the end again, after watching another review for the movie and yeah, that whole bit feels like a first time director who is trying to work out what they’re doing.
GABBY: I think that in your review you have hit a few nails on the head. One of them being is trying to put things together that really don’t belong. It is trying to combine too many things instead of going with one follow through. If this was the superhero to fight of pirates could we have Sala play more into it, and less of the horse riding in forests? I really like that we get introduced to her already existing. I think it works with her. Maybe due to Catherine Zeta Jones’ performance.
Diana Palmer as a character, however, doesn’t work as well as she should. On paper I love the sound of that character. I was so on board to like that character when she was introduced, but they don’t really give her enough time compared to some of the other side-nonsense. To echo what you wrote in that review Brett, it just needed a few more elements to be more finely tuned than they are.
Some of the action scenes with the practical stunts are the areas of the film are really fun though and where you kind of lay aside the clunky expository dialogue and rich people drinking wine scenes.
JEREMY: I agree, Gabby – Diana’s the weak link of the film. But for me, that’s on Kristy Swanson. She’s the only actor incapable of expressing how much fun her character is having on this adventure. The fact that all the characters are having the time of their life being as heroic or nasty as they want is the film’s most appealing element.
Billy Zane manages a wonderful balance between self-deprecation and earnest enthusiasm. He’s having a ball being the Phantom – and he makes all the right decisions to get the audience on board with this movie. And Treat William’s Drax is basically a kid in an evil candy store. Another under-appreciated performance from an under-appreciated actor.
BRETT: Treat Williams clearly made an acting choice in this movie. Like he was sitting there and saying “I am going to take this as far as it can go. I am going to be evil Howard Hughes times a million.”
Zane made a clear acting choice of “I am going to be the nicest, sweetest, most charming tights wearing hero you have ever seen.”
Even Zeta-Jones was “I’m the vamp? Okay, I will be the vampiest vamp that ever done vamped!”
And Kristy Swanson was all “What does my character want? What’s her motivation? Why does she do?”
With the lackluster directing, I think that maybe a better director could have molded her performance to be like everyone else’s. Almost everyone in this movie knows exactly the movie they’re making, save one or two.
GABBY: Do you have any moments of the film that you really love?
BRETT: I really like any scene where Zane gets to interact with anyone where he isn’t fighting because he’s so kind and gentle and it’s just plain weird because he is like… deliberately being the Anti-Grimdark super hero.
You know the scene where Kit shows up in New York and has the conversation with the cabbie about how his money isn’t American? And then pulls out the gems and hands them over? I really like that scene because he is just being so goddamn friendly, and cool and just charming. Likewise, there is a moment when he’s leaving the museum and a woman drops her purse, and he stops, grabs the purse and gives it to her because he’s a goddamn charming gentleman.
GABBY: Any for you, Jeremy?
JEREMY: I’m with Brett about Billy Zane’s scenes in New York. I don’t have a particular favorite moment, but the middle act from Diana’s rescue in Africa to the end of their time in New York largely works. It’s where Billy Zane and Treat Williams get a lot of little moments to charm the audience in their own particular ways.
GABBY: I do love the fact he is so charming.
I love that whole section with the nearly collapsing bridge. I think that does set an odd tone of are they joking with this dialogue or sincere? Have either of you seen George of the Jungle? It reminded me of that in way in terms of setting and some of the villain/action beats, even though in George of the Jungle you can tell they are joking.
I mean that in a way where George of the Jungle goes over-the-top in this respect, whereas The Phantom lets moments of parody kind of creep up on you. I agree with the direction however. Joe Dante would have been much more able to handle that balance and maybe provide a better structure had he completed his role as director.
I like the fact that the moments of parody sneak up on you, but I think it loses its grip on it a lot.
I do think if I watched it a few more times I could really grow an affection towards due to the sense of fun, the stunts and the feel of that setting and serial vibe.
JEREMY: Brett, as the one who knows the Phantom, was there ever any supernatural elements in the comics?
BRETT: I don’t remember any supernatural elements. The comic was more or less interested in crime stopping. The Wikipedia article says that there were two or three early storylines thrown together for the movie with supernatural elements added. So yeah, the super natural elements were because it was the ‘90s and you HAD to give the CGI guys something to do or who knows what they’d get up to?
JEREMY: That, outside of Wincer’s direction, is my main beef with the movie. It’s the only complete wrong turn the script makes. I love the myth the Walker family has created around the Phantom. It’s all smoke and mirrors to intimidate bad guys. The choice of magic skulls – and Kit already having the ring that controls them – goes entirely against that conceit, which I like a good deal more. And don’t get me started on Kit’s ghost dad. “The Ghost Who Walks” actually talks to a ghost… who walks.
BRETT: The Ghost Dad is also an invention of the movie makers as far as I remember. Or rather the Ghost Dad is a failed Bill Cosby movie, but that’s a different issue all together. I have yet to see Ghost Dad, I have no idea if it’s good or not. Please don’t make me buy and watch that movie.
That whole Fourth Skull thing really, really bugs me. I get that it’s supposed to be a big deal that Drax totally missed the fact that there is a fourth skull, but to just drop it out of nowhere feels like it was a last second re-write.
JEREMY: I assumed the supernatural bits were added to the movie. Everything with the dad and the search for the MacGuffin is too Last Crusade for my tastes – even if Boam is the credited writer for both films. There’s a better version of this story where everyone’s chasing the “magical” MacGuffin, and only the Phantom knows that, while the prize is dangerous in the wrong hands, there’s nothing supernatural about it. The lack of a new spin on the Indiana Jones template – like Stephen Sommer’s Mummy remake – is a problem for me.
Also, can we take a moment and discuss how disastrous the tagline “Slam Evil!” was?
BRETT: What does slam evil even mean?
JEREMY: I like that the Phantom only shoots bad guys’ weapons out of their hands, but I’m not sure that’s “slamming evil.” That’s more “sternly reprimanding evil.”
GABBY: The very refined superhero, one who kindly picks up purses and ticks off people who aren’t being polite doesn’t quite have enough of a ring to it though.
BRETT: Is it a problem that this movie is made for PG?
I’m pretty sure him shooting the weapons out of the baddies hands is a call back to the old serial days. If not a direct call back to his own serial then to those of the Lone Ranger and such. The Lone Ranger would occasionally quip things like “These guns are for saving lives, not taking them” and I like that in a Just Darn Good sort of Good guy. I’ve never seen The Phantom serial, which is… odd at best. I’ve seen more serials than anyone else I know, but I missed that one. Okay, having done a bit of quick research it seems that Lee Falk (the creator and main writer of The Phantom until his death in 1999) insisted that he only use his guns to shoot the guns out of people’s hands. So, it’s always been a part of the character.
JEREMY: I like that it’s PG. It’s the right tone for the character.
I’m thinking about what movies I’ll show my kid at what age. The Phantom’s a good early pick in a few years because of the PG rating.
I remember I convinced my friends to rent it one night, and they absolutely hated it. Not because it was too kid-friendly. They weren’t expecting The Punisher. They just couldn’t get on board with it being so earnest and silly.
GABBY: Even though this movie might not be all that it could, I think it is one that I would easily put on due to that earnestness.
BRETT: I also like the earnestness. It makes the movie. How do they not like that?
JEREMY: Earnest isn’t for everyone – especially if there’s no acknowledgment of how silly comic book heroes are when you think about it. Also, earnestness works when you’re invested in the story. I don’t give a fig about the Phantom’s ghost dad. It’s all just plot… even if I admire the enthusiasm with which Boam crammed so many pulp fiction tropes into one screenplay. If anyone can actually defend the movie Ghost Dad, please contact us or comment below and make the attempt.
GABBY: And remember to join us next time as we defend my pick, Camp Rock!