The Shadow began life as either a radio show or a comic book. Honestly I forget which, but he's synonymous with both mediums. He was a big deal, before eventually fading from public view. Such properties can sometimes find their way back with the right push, and a taste for a good ol' retro throwback, which would happen here in 1994...
Lamont Cranston is a wealthy playboy who always seems busy. Known only to few is his true identity. By night he dons a costume and fights crime, keeping the city safe from evildoers with his supernatural powers. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows! His troubled past soon comes to haunt him with the arrival of Shiwan Khan, a Mongol warlord with plans of world domination. Lamont must find out what they are and put a stop to him if he is to save the world as we know it...
1994s The Shadow is a shockingly good time! I avoided it for ages partly because I barely remembered it even existed and no-one seemed to talk about it, but also because I just assumed it was a lame American bastardization of an old classic, which we saw a bit of in the 90s. But this assumption was dead wrong!
The Shadow is a superhero movie with a difference. It has all the hallmarks of the genre, with a masked crimefighter punching criminals, but it does a lot of unique things. Much of this is due to The Shadow himself. He has the power to 'cloud men's minds', making himself appear invisible and projecting his voice. He uses this to scare crooks shitless, with a diabolical cackle that feels more like a horror movie villain!
But it's The Shadow's origin here, which opens the film, that gives the film its most unique edge. Dapper gentleman Lamont Cranston used to be a drug kingpin and warlord in Tibet! The film cuts no bones about him being a full on villain. Menacing and ugly visage, penchant for violence, and trademark bad guy moments. This changes when he's kidnapped by the acolytes of the Tulku, a powerful Tibetan mystic who can see inside men's souls. He recognises the capacity for good inside Lamont's heart, and not only wants to bring it out, but mould him into a ceaseless hero, which will be his penance.
This is a bold choice, and I really commend it! My only issue is that I feel it might just go a bit far. If Lamont was an up-and-coming warlord who'd really only bonked a few people on the head and made a couple of drug deals that'd be one thing, but he's a ruthless killer who's said to control much of the drug trade in Asia! After seeing his actions in the prologue, and his unwillingness to be redeemed, you wonder how he changed. Maybe even the writers realised this would be hard to show convincingly, so we abruptly cut to 7 years later, where he has already become a force for good.
The film is a great mix of pulp American crime and Asian mysticism, with neither feeling abandoned or shortchanged. It almost feels like a light horror film in places too. All this combines to make an adaption that's everything superhero movies should be.
The story is a good one, simple enough but with enough detail to keep you entertained, and enough character depth to give the film some heart and conflict. We see enough of the hero's origin, while also leaving plenty to interpretation, or for a follow-up. The film was sadly never to get a sequel, but thankfully it tells a complete story. While we could have got many more adventures, there are no nagging loose ends, or worse, a cliffhanger!
One problem the film suffers from is we don't see enough of The Shadow. He first appears in that guise 7 minutes in, then it promptly disappears for another 40! Lamont is still in the film, of course, but it takes forever for him to suit up as The Shadow again. Thankfully it's a little more consistent afterwards.
There's good action throughout, and the climax is fun! Great location, some creative fights, and a final battle that emtertains. The supporting leads get enough to do as well, defusing Shiwan Khan's bomb (after first accelerating the time and sending it flying halfway across the building, like a couple of idiots). The ending has a funny twist for the villain, and is a perfect note to end on for the heroes.
Lamont is a charming yet distant guy. He sometimes has what feels like a boyish positivity, that may be a mask he wears. There's also an edge to him, and the film doesn't pull its punches. He's regretful of his past actions, and the darkness within him, and his heroic actions are like a cathartic release for it, for him to be the big scary monster again, only this time in service of good. His body count remains unchanged though! He's still pretty ruthless throughout/
Margo is a likeable gal. She starts out a bit dippy, but soon develops well, and is a spunky dame. Her psychic powers are utilised well, and provide a good connection between her and Lamont. They share good chemistry, and are nice as a couple.
The villain here is Shiwan Khan, Mongol warlord who picked up where Lamont had left off. He's imposing in stature and actions, while very personable to some. I absolutely pissed myself laughing when he claimed to be the last descendant of Genghis Khan! Are you kidding me? Biggest poonhound of Asia? Millions of Mongols are descended from him, and a chunk of all Asians!
Something I liked about his character is the respect he has for Lamont as a warlord, and he asks for him and only him to rule by his side. Often in movies the villain say things like this without meaning them, but here it comes across as a genuine offer. And likewise, the statement "You're just like me" actually means something here, and it feels like there's a danger Lamont could turn to his old ways. I mean, obviously we know the hero's not gonna turn evil, but still!
Helping hm are a gang of Mongol henchmen, who are oddly out-of-time, and also dress identically to Shiwan's warlord outfit, causing no end of confusion. I thought The Shadow absolutely trounced the main villain halfway through and threw him 50 stories out a window to an embarrassing defeat, before realising it was just a random goon.
Next is the supporting cast. One of the cooler things about the film is The Shadow's entourage. He has his headquarters, packed with snazzy pneumatic tubes, he's got a car (more inconspicuous than a 'Shadowmobile' though), and a vast network of contacts and agents. All of whom owe their lives (quite literally) to The Shadow after he saved them from danger, and they help in various ways.
This includes Dr. Roy Tam, rescued in the prologue. He's a good character, and nice representation showing off this kind of transitional Asian American. New enough to have slight accents, but Yankee enough to wear a suit and tie and listen to the baseball game while the wife makes damn fine apple pie!
Lamont's uncle is the police chief, and he has a few nice scenes. He knows Lamont disappeared from the face of the earth for almost a decade after the war, and respects his silence on the matter, but is concerned about him. Like how a man with no job can still always be late for everything.
Apparently The Shadow was a bit chaotic behind-the-scenes. Not so much the filming itself from what I understand, but the studio's demands during post-production? This lead to dissatisfaction with various people. I'm not sure exactly who did what, and what state the film was originally intended to be in, and how it differs to what we got. All I know is that you should ignore all of that, because the film holds up very well, and doesn't feel at all the victim of interference or clashing tones.
Upon its release, the film was a commercial failure, and received poor critical reviews. Looking back on what they said now, it feels like some of the negative pushback was a little naive. And they just wouldn't realise how bad things could get. I bet a lot of them would change their tune, and realise just how striking and memorable this could be.
The direction in The Shadow is by industry veteran Russell Mulcahy, who I really like (plus he's an Aussie!), yet I had no idea he made this! And here I thought I knew his whole filmography. He does a great job, and there's a neat use of shadow, which perfectly complements the title. There's a dream sequence that has his fingerprints all over it, complete with industrial pipeworks, and pyrotechnic effects.
The effects here are mixed, mostly on the positive side. For a start the sets are fantastic, as are the recreations of period New York! It has a great 1920s/30s feel, with a dash of retro-futurism thrown in. The costumes and practical effects all look very good. The digital effects are decent some of the time, but look a little cheesy in places, and almost bad in others. But they're used sparingly enough for this to not be a problem. One of the weirder effects is The Shadow's face! You don't notice it at first because we don't get a good enough look at it, but it looks...off somehow. And the climax actually shows why, with a morphing glamour. There are a few strange moments with his eyes too.
The score here is pretty good! It's a bit reminiscent of Tim Burton's Batman. There's enough superhero character to it, even if it's not the most breathtaking or memorable track out there.
The Shadow has a packed cast. Leading man Alec Baldwin is very good with all the different faces to his characters. John Lone (of Rush Hour 2 fame) is an effective villain. Penelope Ann Miller is a good co-star. Peter Boyle is a welcome sight as a cabbie sidekick. Ian McKellen is ok, but a little wasted. It's always a pleasure seeing Tim Curry, and he's mostly good here, even if his American accent is spotty, and he gets a bit too droolingly insane in the end. James Hong has a disappointingly small role. And Sab Shimono gets a very different role here, doing well. I'm used to seeing him as evil Japanese businessmen, or ruthless ancient warlords, but here he's an average all-American Asian!
The Shadow is an undiscovered gem, and one of the best comic book movies out there, as well as one of the most loyal, in my opinion! It's worth watching, and definitely deserves a cult following and reappraisal...