For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:
The Shadow (1994) – dir. Russell Mulcahy
JOSH: For our next Random Viewing, we turn from the metaphysical mysteries of The Quiet Earth to the evil that lurks in the hearts of men in Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow. Adapted from the popular and long running CBS radio series of old, this is the tale of Lamont Cranston, a suave man of leisure who moonlights as the mysterious crime fighter The Shadow, known for his black coat and red scarf, his piercing eyes, his cackling laugh, and blowing away the bad guys from time to time.
If our first two movies don’t have many obvious similarities, they are nevertheless tales of two selfish men given opportunities to redeem themselves. The Shadow begins in exotic Tibet in the early 1930s, where Lamont Cranston (played by Alec Baldwin), suave man of leisure, has apparently let his dark side run absolutely wild. You’ve heard about the Ugly American, but Lamont has really taken that ball and run with it, setting himself up as a local opium peddler and warlord going by the name of Yin-Ko. After killing the wrong man, Lamont is kidnapped and taken before an ancient mystic, who offers Lamont a choice – reform and put himself in the service of goodness and justice, or get butchered by a sentient flying dagger with a permanently bad attitude named Phurba. Lamont, sensibly, chooses to reform, but it takes a good seven years of training before he’s sent back to his homeland, good ol’ New York, NY.
Among the skills Lamont learns during his discipleship are the ability to change his appearance, to hide in plain sight (to literally become a shadow), to control the minds of others. Upon his return to New York he adopts the character The Shadow, dispensing justice and building an elaborate network of agents, both willing and otherwise, to feed him information, act as his emissaries, and generally advance the common good, as defined by reformed war lord and murderer Lamont Cranston.
Things are going… fine, let’s say, until the sarcophagus of Genghis Khan arrives in New York. This sarcophagus contains not the remains of the famous conqueror himself, but the very much alive body of his last living descendent, Shiwan Khan (John Lone, delightful throughout), who promptly sets in motion a plot to bend the world to his will. This naturally puts him in the crosshairs of The Shadow, and while you might think this is good vs evil, it turns out that things are a little bit more shades of grey when pitting an aspiring despot against a reformed warlord and drug trafficker. Who knew! Also along for the ride here is Peter Boyle as Cranston’s on-demand cabbie chauffeur; Ian McKellan, doing a really bad American accent, as a nuclear scientist who his integral to Khan’s plan; Tim Curry as McKellan’s treacherous assistant; Penelope Ann Miller as McKellan’s daughter, Margo, who happens to be a telepath who is immune to Lamont’s mind control; and Jonathan Winters as Cranston’s uncle, the chief of police.
Ok, so having dispensed with this boilerplate, let’s get down to brass tacks. I know this was the first time seeing this movie for both of us. I have avoided it for 24 years for the very simple and stupid reason that it was a notorious flop at the time of its release, and I’d always heard it wasn’t very good (though who, in fact, I heard that from, I’ll probably never know – maybe it was The Shadow himself?).
Well, a flop it was, but on the second count I am happy to say that I was wrong. The Shadow is not a bad movie, though it is a pretty silly movie, and maybe that silliness is what doomed it back in its day (though I think its release date, sandwiched in between The Lion King and True Lies, probably had a lot to do with it too). I don’t know, but from where I’m sitting now, any movie that starts with Alec Baldwin in a bad wig, playing a playboy turned warlord, is starting off on the right foot.
There’s a lot of different directions we could take this conversation, but let me pause at this point to throw it over to you. This was definitely a highly publicized movie at the time, and yet we both managed to avoid it for the better part of two and a half decades. Now that you have, what do you think? Is Alec Baldwin’s performance, half Jack Donaghy deadpan, half Glengarry Glen Ross trash talking, an inspired meta-performance, evidence of serious malpractice from the casting department, or some perilous middle ground? And is Phurba the sentient dagger the best character in the movie, or the best character of the 90s? The Shadow awaits your response.
BEN: I can definitely see why The Shadow bombed when it was initially released; what’s less clear is why it hasn’t become more of a cult classic since hitting video.
After the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, Hollywood (and the rest of America) went comic book crazy, but much like the comic book boom of the early 90s Hollywood couldn’t figure out what to do with that newfound enthusiasm for the medium for at least another decade. For some reason Hollywood looked at Batman (created 1939) and other popular movies at the time like the Indiana Jones trilogy and thought 90s kids must really love pulp heroes from the 30s and 40s (cue Ron Howard voice: “They didn’t”). After Batman we got Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Rocketeer and The Phantom, all of which had varying degrees of success, but none of which made even a fraction of the impact at the box office that Batman did. Turns out, 90s kids just weren’t that into characters that probably weren’t even that familiar to a lot of their parents. Go figure.
So yeah, I can see why there weren’t a lot of radio serial fans/pulp paperback nerds lined up to see The Shadow on opening weekend. Despite having what looks like a fantastic cast today, I don’t think I was really that familiar with any of these actors back in 1994. And yet, I think this is one of those rare movies that just gets better with age. It subverts so many of the superhero movie clichés that we’re familiar with today just by pure virtue of the fact that they weren’t clichés back then. The Shadow (the movie and the character) can, and will, do whatever it wants, and that’s what makes it so fun to watch.
Take the prologue set in Mongolia that you mentioned above. Our first glimpse of Lamont Cranston is of an opium warlord with hair like a Ringu ghost and long black fingernails sharpened to a point who tells his goons to shoot through one of his most trusted advisers in order to kill a man who didn’t really pose much of a threat to any of them. This is the hero of the movie, folks! Lamont then gets kidnapped by the man who sees his potential to become the Shadow, but instead of some long, extended training montage à la Bruce Wayne and Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, we suddenly jump 7 years into the future with only this fantastic title card to explain what just happened:
The price of redemption for Cranston was to take up man’s struggle against evil. The Tulku taught him to cloud men’s minds, to fog their vision through force of concentration, leaving visible the only thing he can never hide — his Shadow.
Thus armed, Cranston returned to his homeland, that most wretched lair of villainy we know as —
Cue cowboys in a salsa commercial: “NEW YORK CITY!?”
And thus the guy who probably would have been the villain in any other superhero movie is now a fully-formed hero terrorizing a bunch of mobsters on a NYC bridge, again, much like Batman. Nothing is ever entirely explained in The Shadow. Things just happen and you’re either expected to already know the source material or expected to just keep up, because this movie has no intention of slowing down for anything, which is where I think most of its charm comes from. If the movie gave you a second to think of how absurd everything was the film would fall apart under its own weight. Instead, much like its protagonist, the plot appears and disappears like a ninja assassin, taking you from one entertaining set piece to the next.
One of the things I hate most in comic book movies is the origin story movie. How many times do we have to see Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben die, or watch Bruce Wayne watch his parents get shot in Crime Alley? If we really want to know how these heroes became heroes there’s tons of source material already out there that you can get your hands on. I want to see my heroes do actual hero stuff and be the characters we all want them to be, which is one area where I think The Shadow definitely succeeds. We skip right over the boring origin story movie and pick right back up in the middle of his career.
And speaking of things only half-explained, Phurba the dagger, everybody! I have no idea why this thing is even in the movie, outside of the fact that it was the early 90s and you weren’t anybody if you didn’t have a completely CGI character in your movie. I’m sure back then, to audiences raised on the greatest era of cinematic practical effects, the CGI in this movie looked pretty terrible. Looking back through the goggles of nostalgia though, the CGI here isn’t half bad for early 90s work. Phurba actually looks fairly believable, at least as believable as any practical animatronic or puppet work would have looked. And while some of the morphing effects have a dated Pentium II 3D effect look to them, they look no worse than Alec Baldwin’s horrible nose prosthetic that seems like it was only included in the movie so that the studio would have an image that matched the Shadow’s hooked nose profile made so famous by pulp book and magazine covers. Every time the Shadow switches to his classic look he almost immediately switches back to looking like Alec Baldwin, and I guess the people making the movie should be commended on not actually doubling down on that trainwreck when they didn’t need to.
What did you think about the special effects in The Shadow, Josh? And — wait a minute — maybe we should talk about the actual plot of this movie? Or not. Only the Shadow knows what you’ll write about next!
JOSH: I thought the effects work was pretty good for the era, which is to say that it’s endearingly bad, so proudly displayed as a groundbreaking technological feat and so primitive now. This was just a year after Jurassic Park revolutionized digital effects, and let’s just say that Phurba and company do little to further push the envelope. And that’s fine! I think there’s a real charm to the films of this era, an unavoidable fakeness that ends of up working in their favor. And the contrast between the relatively primitive (but no doubt pricey) digital effects and the absolutely deluxe physical production elements (the gorgeous sets and costumes, for example) is also very enjoyable, very typical of a time – an awkward straddling of one era that’s dying but not quite dead, and another that has just been born but isn’t quite breathing on its own yet.
That’s equally true of it’s approach to the superhero genre. It definitely owes more to the Indiana Jones’ and Rocketeers of the world than the Supermans and Batmans, at least in terms of how it approaches the genre and the now obligatory first movie origin stuff. I have to say, I think it’s a relief that screenwriter David Koepp and company realized that Lamont Cranston’s origin story would be the least interesting possible angle on this. Do we need to know how or why a New York society boy turned into a warlord in Tibet? No, it’s much more entertaining to just know that he is, to lead with that image, and let that be your introduction to the character.
And it allows for a much more playful tone. The Shadow layers in a lot of really fun humor by playing on the fact that Lamont Cranston is basically a nasty piece of shit, whose worst instincts have been channeled in a more positive direction on threat of death. And it makes his interactions with Khan a lot of fun, because…. Well, you know the old cliché in these movies, where the villain goes, “We’re not so different, you and me?” That’s especially true here, where Khan studied under the same master as The Shadow, and employs many of the same tricks but with greater mastery. It’s not hard to see Khan as the man Cranston might have wanted to become at one point (or maybe still does on some level?). But the movie doesn’t make this some dreary dirge on the duality of man or whatever. No, Koepp and Mulcahy use it to set up dialogue exchanges like this:
KHAN: In three days, the entire world will hear my roar, and willingly fall subject to the lost empire of Shan Khan. That is a lovely tie, by the way. May I ask where you acquired it?
CRANSTON: Brooks Brothers.
KHAN: Is that mid-town?
CRANSTON: 45th and Madison. You are a barbarian.
KHAN: Thank you. We both are.”
Annnnnnnd…. Scene! That exchange honestly had me giggling, but it’s far from the only one. The Shadow has a real irreverence that feels both slyly self-satirizing and sincerely appreciative.
And while I don’t know that we should really go into the plot much more than we have – it’s just the old saw about a villain who wants to conquer the world and a hero who has to stop him – we should definitely talk about John Lone as Khan, because he is a big part of why exchanges like the above work so well. It’s a delightfully self-aware performance, just as much as Baldwin’s, and I really enjoyed how they both managed to convey the seriousness and the absurdity of their characters without winking or going full camp with it. They’re genuinely thoughtful performances perfectly in harmony with the movie around them, and while that’s not as much of a surprise from Baldwin, who has been doing that for a while, Lone was a real discovery for me, even though I’ve seen him in other things. This movie made me want to see more.
But on that story front, do you have anything you want to address directly? This movie struck me as the perfect embodiment of the old Roger Ebert line, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s about how it is about it.” I think we’ve covered the how of it pretty well, but then again, the what of it does still matter.
Oh, and before I throw it back to you entirely, we should probably just tip our caps to the director, Russell Mulcahy, who does a very able job juggling material that is a bit more complicated than it first appears. I think the conventional wisdom, at the time and maybe now, is that he didn’t actually do a very good job, but if that’s the conventional wisdom it’s hogwash. Mulcahy is most famous for the two Highlander movies, the second of which he tried (and failed) to have his name removed from. I don’t like either of those movies, and I haven’t seen anything else he did, but you could have worse claims to fame than directing this film.
All right, back to you to reveal once and for all… Jerry Springer voice: What evil lurks in the hearts of men…?
BEN: In retrospect, it was probably pretty dumb of me to bring up the plot of The Shadow, as it’s easily the least interesting part of this movie. It took me a while to remember what Khan’s evil master plan even was. This descendant of Genghis Khan (whom no one has ever heard of) is threatening NYC with an atomic bomb (something that wouldn’t be invented in real life for another decade or so, and something no one in this movie would have even heard of before) from an abandoned hotel (that no one can see) for (cue Dr. Evil:) one BILLION dollars! Khan’s goal is to finish what Genghis started and take over the world, but it’s not entirely clear if he plans on using the one billion dollars to do so, a ludicrously high amount of money to ask for during the Great Depression, or if he always planned on destroying NYC with the bomb, which seems very probable, since he leaves the bomb on a timer as he makes his exit from the city via plane. The whole thing doesn’t really hold up to a close examination, which is actually what makes this movie kinda great. The whole thing is pure comic book insanity.
I mean, this is a movie where a Mongol warrior in full battle armor regalia is trying to super subtly tail Lamont on a busy New York City street. In what universe would he expect to NOT be noticed by The Shadow looking like that? Thankfully, the answer is this universe. So instead of trying to further explain the plot of the Shadow, I thought I’d spend the remainder of my time firing off some of my favorite moments in the movie:
- Every time Khan uses his hypnosis powers, his eyes get super big like an anime character’s or a kewpie doll. It’s super adorable.
- Lamont’s standing order at the club is two martinis. I don’t know why, I just thought that it was hilarious that the waitstaff already knows that he likes to double fist it as soon as he sits down.
- Not once, but twice in the film one of the bad guys twirls around the room firing off a tommy gun in a desperate attempt to hit the hidden Shadow. Turns out, the spray and pray strategy is not super effective.
- Peter Boyle’s taxi cab is probably the coolest looking NYC cab in cinema history, and Boyle’s performance as the cabbie who drives like a crazy person but remains perfectly calm the entire time behind the wheel is perfect.
- Ian McKellan plays a pretty boring absent-minded professor type here, and yet I love the fact that one of his recurring jokes is that he can’t tell the difference between red and green and it’s never really explained why that is, ie he’s colorblind, or something like that. Therefore, since it’s never explained, the logical inference is that he’s just so absent-minded that he never bothered to learn what colors were which. Wait, what?!
- Bullets from the Shadow’s guns can knock a man clear across the room. At one point Khan and the Shadow shoot each other’s bullets out of the sky (because of course they do) and somehow the force of that one in a billion shot doesn’t cause its own mini-nuclear implosion.
- The movie has some great one-off lines. Personal favorites include, “Psychically I’m very well-endowed”, and “It’s all falling into place for me now…”, something Lamont says in the foreground as a sailor throws himself off of the Empire State building in the distant background.
- But perhaps the best line delivery in the entire movie happens after Margo spends the night at the Shadow’s home and tells him the next morning about an erotic dream she had about lying naked on a South Pacific beach. She’s obviously flirting, but when asked what he dreamed of, Lamont answers, in perfect Alec Baldwin deadpan, “I dreamed I ripped all the skin off of my face and was someone else underneath.” The joke doesn’t just land because of Penelope Ann Miller’s perfect stunned reaction shot, but also because the audience knows that that’s literally what he just dreamed about. The startling dream sequence where Lamont rips his face off is probably the best special effect shot in the entire film.
But you’re right that all the best moments in the film come from any of the scenes where Khan and the Shadow face off against one another. Their tête-à-têtes are so gentlemanly and civil, like something out of a James Bond movie. Josh, you already quoted the fantastic scene where Khan asks Lamont where he got his Brooks Brothers tie, and I just wanted to add to that by pointing out that the next time the two of them meet Khan is wearing a tie that’s obviously also from Brooks Brothers, and in between the two of them making verbal jabs at each other Lamont still manages to take a moment to compliment Khan on his tie. It’s just one of many little nods that the filmmakers are in on the joke and having a blast with it, which becomes immediately obvious to anyone watching the film. The Shadow is just a damn fun movie. Are you going to like this movie? Only the Shadow knows…but yeah, if you’re up for a good time you will enjoy this movie.
That’s all for this week’s discussion of The Shadow. Tune in next time as Josh and I discuss Cargo (2017) – dir. Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke, aka that zombie movie on Netflix starring Martin Freeman that you probably added to your queue a while back but will most likely never watch because you can never figure out if any of these movies are suppose to be any good, so instead you just end up rewatching The Office again for the hundredth time (bonus points if it’s the British version of The Office, starring, you guessed it, Martin Freeman!)