“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
Let’s take a trip back to 1994. Alec Baldwin was on the fast-track to action-movie stardom, following his role as Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October. Penelope Ann Miller was a rising starlet, popping up in a growing number of films, the most famous probably being Awakenings and Carlito’s Way, though she was also the titular actor’s daughter in Chaplin. And some movie exec at Universal decided to cast them in leading roles for the expected blockbuster of summer 1994, a revamp of the old pulp hero The Shadow, certain to start an extended franchise of films and toy promotions and tie-in novels and etc.
How about a synopsis?
Like far too many action movies, this one starts with a lightning-fast pre-title-sequence rehash to get the audience up to speed. Alec Baldwin is ornery badass Yin-Ko, Mongolian opium dealer. He’s abducted by the Tulku, stock Tibetan mystic, who’s decided to make Yin-Ko redeem himself and return once more to the light. He apparently succeeds and teaches him psychic powers, because the next thing we know, Baldwin is The Shadow, dishing out vigilante justice to Mugsy and Joey Noodles in the New York City of the Stock Movie ’30s. (And by vigilante justice, I mean he screws with a guy’s head and sends him go confess his crimes.)
The Shadow’s alter-ego is Lamont Cranston, millionaire playboy orphan, nephew to the unsuspecting New York City police chief tasked with going after The Shadow. (Yeah, guess who Batman was ripping off? That’s right. The Spider. Er, I mean, The Phantom Detective. Er. Pulps in general.) Anyways, Uncle Policechief grousing about The Shadow gives Cranston a chance to show off his “clouding men’s minds” psychic powers—the lighting dims, shadows creep across Baldwin’s face, and he pulls the old Jedi mind trick on his own uncle. As their conversation continues, Cranston sees our female leading role: Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), eccentric society girl whose beauty stuns him into taking her on a date. Whereupon she stuns him again by revealing she has telepathic powers, responding to questions he never asked.
Margo Lane also happens to be the daughter to Professor Reinhardt Lane, played by Ian McKellen back before he had attained nerddom cult status. He’s the typical absent-minded professor, too engrossed in his devices (he’s an atomic scientist, see) to pay attention to his daughter’s relationship woes. His atomic work for the government is designed to be the peaceful generation of cheap power, but he’s worried it’ll be used it to make weapons. Also, he’s colorblind; that’s an important fact that the film beautifully shows without telling. His assistant is a lecherous Tim Curry, which should say all there is about this assistant character.
This film needs a villain, doesn’t it? Cut to the Museum of Natural History, which has just received a Tibetan mummy sarcophagus. The two head scientists wander off to investigate this strange shipment, leaving behind a bumbling security guard, who happens to be there when… it cracks open! To reveal Shiwan Khan (John Lone), descendant of Genghis Khan and fellow student of the Tulku. Though, he failed at redemption and killed the mystic. Khan sets out to conquer the world, using his own telekinetic powers, and a special metal called “bronzium”… which could act as the explosive core for a theoretical atomic bomb. And guess which absent-minded atomic professor just went missing?
Under the hood
You can start to see why Universal thought this was the perfect film to make. Its main competitors of the time were the Batman movies, and The Shadow has a lot of similarities there with its exaggerated hero and villain, psychic powers, and retro-noir setting. Though, its Big Apple is a lot more stock realism than the over-the-top, retro-noir cartoon zaniness of Gotham City. Instead, Shadow can’t seem to figure out if it’s going for seriousness or comic. All of the people Shiwan Khan uses his mind-control on are dumber than sacks of rocks. Take the security guard, for example: they banter back and forth, with the security guard doing his best “Barney Fife post-lobotomy” impression, before Khan has him blow his brains out. Wait, what? You jumped from cheap kiddie laughs to brutal murder? Well then.
Oh, and speaking of zany: Tim Curry’s character has his own Bond-villain death building, some kind of airtight dome down by the bridge which is, again, airtight, has one exit, can fill to the ceiling with water, and has one of those circular-handled hatch doors (like you see on submarines or vaults) which are easily jammed shut with a simple lead pipe. Why? Who knows. Maybe it’s related to his work with beryllium spheres. (“Honey, I have to run down to my airtight death building to do some science!”)
To be fair, this was the kind of stuff The Shadow had to deal with back in the pulps; for vigilante superheroes the ’30s was full of random doofs just waiting to throw their lasers, murder-machines, and airtight death buildings into play. Heck, this film’s villain is trying to take over the world by blowing up New York; I’ll cut some slack for over-the-top villainy.
As for the acting…
Alec Baldwin does a damn fine job as both action hero and millionaire playboy, but I just can’t shake my preconceptions of him as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. Worse, I never got a real sense that he’d changed from the pre-title sequence; he spends the film “fighting off” his darker nature, but I never got a sense that a.) he’d lost said darkness, or b.) that this version of the character had it in the first place. Penelope Ann Miller, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fit. There are some scenes she really shines in. Most of the time, her performance and characterization is annoying.
John Lone chews plenty of scenery with his erudite villain persona, which he does a good job at. I’m not sure if it’s the makeup or if he’s wearing contacts or something, but he has huge eyes, like anime-huge, which was just weird. Ian McKellan is underused, considering he’s made a bigger name for himself than anyone else (arguably excepting Baldwin) in the following decades. Tim Curry is, much as you’d expect, Tim Curry; I’m convinced the man is made of nothing but ham and cheese. Peter Boyle also shows up as The Shadow’s driver, “Moe” Shrevnitz; again, underused, though he gets a few killer one-liners.
And for the pulp fan?
For the most part, the film follows The Shadow’s history and attire well; he’s got his trademark trenchcoat, slouch hat, red scarf, fake nose, and chromed .45’s. And he’s got his trademark driver, and an army of minions working away to keep him informed. The big changes are slight; Margo is telepathic, for one. And “Lamont Cranston” was a real millionaire playboy that The Shadow, really Kent Allard, was using the name of; this complexity was smoothed over. On the downside: the movie kept the old pulps’ “yellow peril” vibes in the form of bad, almost racist Asian stereotypes. Gah.
What about the SFX?
The effects are all over the place. Expect bad early-’90s green-screens butting shoulders with some great matte-paintings, decent backdrops, and other physical effects. And there’s some okay to pretty good early-’90s SFX, namely fight scenes between Yin-Ko/Cranston and a psychic flying knife. (I have to keep reminding myself that Jurassic Park came out the year before.)
The sets can feel noticeably fake—namely the cardboard building backdrops—but in the same way movie sets in the ’30s feel fake. (To try again: things look like ’30s film sets, not ultra-realistic film studio sets of recent years.) To add to the noir feel, the film uses a lot of cheap lighting effects, putting Baldwin in shadow or darkening the area he’s in, to signify the use of his psychic powers. Which I think works pretty well, though it’s admittedly cheap.
The Bottom Line:
That’s the rub of the film: it’s admittedly cheap, it’s corny, it’s got a dated “yellow peril” vibe, it doesn’t know whether to take itself as a serious action film or a Saturday morning matinée. It tries to straddle both lines, and become the action-packed summer blockbuster to launch a franchise to boot. And it failed, bad enough to (reportedly) wrack the careers of its leading stars. It only made $48 million, making it a flop with its $40 million budget.
The Shadow isn’t that bad; it’s good, if you’re willing to let some things slide and take others into account later. It’s a flawed fun movie, a kind of gem of lost action franchises that could have been, plagued with problems and too under-defined to make it any more complex than “mindless entertainment.” Certainly underrated, though it falls short of “great;” there’s a reason its expected franchise didn’t take. But if you’re in the mood for a fun action movie, give it a spin; it won’t disappoint on that front.
Also, take note, Sam Raimi is rumored to head a new Shadow film sometime in the near future.