Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 13, 2014)
Although 1989’s Batman brought back superheroes as a viable cinematic subject, this revival didn’t last long. Follow-ups like 1990’s Dick Tracy and 1992’s Batman Returns didn’t live up to the heights Batman enjoyed, so the genre largely petered out until 2002’s Spider-Man brought it back to prominence.
Into this “lean period” came 1994’s The Shadow. Based on the 1930s character, the movie intended to be a summer blockbuster but audiences failed to embrace it. It made a mere $32 million in the US, so any potential franchise died then and there.
Like most, I stayed away from The Shadow in 1994, but I figured this 2014 Blu-ray gave me a good chance to see if I missed anything. We open in Tibet after World War I, where we meet American Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin). Rather than go home following the war, Lamont decides to install himself as a warlord called “Ying Ko” who rules in a brutal manner.
Those who follow a supernatural holy man named the Tulku (voiced by Barry Dennen) abduct Lamont and the leader commands Cranston to become a force of good. Despite Lamont’s initial objections, he eventually obeys and undergoes seven years of training.
Cranston then returns to New York City, where he acts like a shallow
“man about town” to hide his secret identity as the Shadow, a crime-fighting vigilante. Along the way, he runs up against Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a baddie with similar powers who plans to eventually take over the world. We follow their battles as well as Cranston’s romance with Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) and related elements.
Given his career path since 1994, it becomes difficult to recall the era in which Baldwin seemed like a viable action hero. I think we now view him as a comedic actor, and the sight of Baldwin in “superhero mode” seems a little tough to take.
Baldwin did fine as Jack Ryan in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, but that role was more of an “everyman” than Cranston/The Shadow. Baldwin handles the playboy side of the part reasonably well but can’t do much with the Shadow himself; rather than give the character the mystical menace he needs, Baldwin lends the Shadow a feeling of campy insouciance that doesn’t work.
That tone tends to permeate the film. While I don’t think Shadow needs the level of seriousness found in the Dark Knight trilogy, it tends too much toward the lighter/more comedic vibe. Even when the movie doesn’t look for obvious laughs, it plays in such a glib, semi-campy manner that it doesn’t stick. A little added drama would make events more exciting and less fluffy.
The absence of compelling characters doesn’t help. Though the Shadow clearly influenced Batman, the latter offers a substantially more interesting role as developed in movies. While the Shadow may have come first, Batman does pretty much everything better, and that factor means this film stalls because the lead personality doesn’t do much for us.
Batman also has much more interesting foes than the intensely forgettable ones found here. Maybe someone out there thinks Shiwan Khan is more involving than the Joker, but I suspect it’d be hard to find that person. Khan never becomes more than a token, one-note baddie; he adds nothing to the film other than a generic menace.
Director Russell Mulcahy does bring a nice sense of style to the production, as the film captures its Depression Era setting in a compelling manner. And the movie comes with a positive cast; in addition to those mentioned, we find talents such as Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters and Peter Boyle.
Unfortunately, the movie feels like a superficial combination of Batman and Dick Tracy and never combusts. That doesn’t make The Shadow a truly bad film, and it does show occasional glimmers of life. These don’t ever get going to a substantial degree, though, so the flick remains largely forgettable and mediocre.