In a crime ridden city, a mysterious vigilante prowls the streets, striking fear into the hearts of criminals using his wits, skills, and gadgets. With the alter ego and resources of a playboy billionaire he is… The Shadow!
Now, for those of you thinking that this sounds suspiciously like a flying rodent obsessed playboy billionaire know that The Shadow came first. Hell, When Bob Kane and Bill Finger first conceived of the “Bat-Man“, Finger suggested they pattern the character after pulp mystery men such as The Shadow. Finger then used “Partners of Peril“—a Shadow pulp written by Theodore Tinsley—as the basis for Batman’s debut story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” Finger later publicly acknowledged that “my first Batman script was a take-off on a Shadow story”. This influence was further evident with Batman showing little remorse over killing or maiming criminals and not being above using firearms, although Batman later changed his mind on the whole killing people thing because it’s hard to keep coming up with memorable villains.
As for The Shadow, he first appeared in print in 1930, and swiftly became popular enough to make the jump to radio in 1937. It utilized the talents of legendary actor Orson Wells in a rather good series that you can track down on YouTube today.
The character remained popular in print for the next six decades and in 1994 he finally made the leap to the silver screen starring Alec Baldwin, Sir Ian McKellen, Penelope Ann Miller and Tim Curry.
True story: I actually picked this film up completely by accident when I was at university. I’d been invited to ‘bad movie’ party and somehow managed to mistake this for The Phantom. No, I’m not sure how I managed that either.
I still own that DVD to this day because this film is a fun throwback to the ear of pulp, a superhero film that manages to be dark yet fun. With enough serious actors to reign in those who mistook the scenery for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The plot is incredibly simple. The Shadow (played by Alec Baldwin) is made aware that the last descendant of Genghis Khan (John Lone) has traveled to New York city to hypnotize a brilliant scientist (played by Sir Ian McKellen) into building him a nuclear bomb with which he will take over ze vorld!!!! Probably whilst twirling his mustache.
The films most (if not only) interesting idea is that Khan regards The Shadow as an idol who has been tempted from the path of darkness by a mysterious band of monks who turned him from an evil opium overlord into the titular vigilante. There’s even several scenes where the two converse and attempt to sway each other to their point of view. It does seem to get left by the wayside when I would have liked to have seen it developed more but its still a pretty cool idea.
One thing that seems refreshing, even in this supposed ‘golden age’ of Comic Book movies is that the leading lady Margo Lane (played by Penelope Ann Miller) is seriously useful and not just a damsel in distress. Shes fierce, stubborn, saves The Shadow quite a few times and even ends up saving the day whilst our hero is off on his personal vendetta.
One thing that is absolutely in this movies favor is it’s side cast. Whilst McKellen is amazing as a stereotypical forgetful scientist (i’m going to assume he had either a weekend free or needed to pay off a parking ticket.) He and pretty much everyone else is acted off screen by the always fun Tim Curry who starts off fairly restrained but by the end seems to have been let off the leash completely by the poor director.
However, this move isn’t perfect. Like I said, the plots pretty simple and it’s one interesting idea could be stripped out completely and it wouldn’t really have harmed the the film in any way shape or form. But when your villains sole character trait is that he’s the last descendant of Genghis Khan and is planning global domination- I guess being subtle wasn’t exactly on the cards.
And then we get to our leading man. Alec Baldwin, an actor at the top of his game, acting in a blockbuster film with a character that was not only the star of the most popular pulp series of all time, not only was previously voiced by the legendary Orson Wells, but had this script written with him in mind…. is OK. He’s fine. if anything he seems slightly wooden and phoning it in. I get that in the era of Spawn, Batman Forever, The Phantom and God knows how many more, the comic book film wasn’t as respected as it is today but even so his performance isn’t everything that it could be.
Also, the fight scenes are corny and not particularly effective. For a man armed with twin pistols and a reputation for not being too bothered with taking prisoners The Shadow seems determined to resort to his fists at every opportunity, even though the fight choreographer seems to have been doing his job with one eye on the pub.
You cant particularly call the dialogue inspired either it’s functional at best with a few horrifically obvious single entendres thrown in for good measure.
Now, this was filmed in a mere 60 days on five sound stages in Hollywood (with an extra week added to shooting after an earthquake demolished an important set. And to look at, this film captures 30’s New York perfectly, mostly through the help of some rather glorious backdrop paintings that still stand up today. And the sets themselves look glorious
In fact, most of the FX still look pretty good today because they are kept to a minimum. The film knows that it needs to work within the boundaries of it’s budget and the limitations of the time. Now of course, this did come out three years after Terminator 2: Judgement Day (which depressingly still looks good today but that’s for another time.) However, unlike T2 this film didn’t have the luxury of becoming the most expensive film of all time, in fact the budget seems fairly average for the time at 40 million dollars or one Mechanic
Unfortunately, when this film was released, it had the luck be released up against The Lion King and then The Mask meaning that the film never really had the chance to find an audience before vanishing into the either. It has developed a cult following in the last few years but not enough to allow Sam Raimi of Evil Dead fame to get his planned reboot off the ground.
And in a way, i’m glad. This is a nineties film that throws back to the era of pulp from the 30’s and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you get a chance or your in the mood for some pulpy fun, check it out.
And finally, what better way to end than with that immortal line: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay… The Shadow knows!”