Directed by Russell Mulcahy
Distributed by The Shout! Factory
If you were a film geek growing up in the ‘90s, you probably know the marketing for The Shadow (1994) very well. And if you do, you likely have a hard time resisting the urge to say “The Shadow knows” anytime someone utters the phrase “Who knows?” I’ve been guilty of doing that for years; yet, I had never seen the film responsible for the catch phrase until just now. It’s telling that the marketing was so effective that all these years later it can still be referenced and understood by a reasonably large segment of filmgoers.
Unfortunately, that’s about all The Shadow is known for these days. The film, based on a 1930’s serial radio drama of the same name, was intended to be the launching pad for an entire franchise. When Tim Burton hit it big with Batman (1989), studios spent the next few years trying to launch any other bankable properties they owned or could buy up. Writer David Koepp, who had just done the previous year’s Jurassic Park (1993), had been hired some years earlier to pen a screenplay, finally submitting something to the studio’s liking a couple years later. The resulting film was gritty and dark before that became a go-to descriptor for nearly every superhero film made over a decade later. Koepp’s screenplay was light on levity and heavy on evil and potential world destruction. Audiences stayed away for the most part, leaving the fate of The Shadow to be a single film with no franchise to come. Sometimes time can be kind to these forgotten relics of ‘90s cinema, allowing viewers to become fans when a reassessment yields a better experience. And while that wasn’t the case for me, thanks to Shout! Factory this is the best presentation for finding out if twenty years has done anything to age it like a fine wine.
The film opens in Tibet, after WWI, and Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin), a former U.S. soldier, has become an evil warlord named Ying-Ko who has men murdered and rules with a thirst for blood. One day he is kidnapped by a holy man who challenges Ying-Ko to change his ways and work as a champion of retribution. Ying-Ko refuses, but when the holy man produces a flying dagger with teeth that stabs him, he has a change of heart and decides to go along with whatever the guy says. Cut to some time later and we’re introduced to The Shadow, a…well, shadowy figure who thwarts the efforts of bad guys across town and saves the innocent from the criminals. In return, all he asks is that they become his informants, aiding his fight for justice. By day, Cranston presents himself as an ostentatious socialite with only material interests. Bruce Wayne, more or less. He’s able to cloud people’s minds using a telepathic ability, which is a large part of how his secret has remained hidden.
One day Cranston meets Margot (Penelope Ann Miller), a fellow socialite who has her own mental abilities, making her able to see right through Cranston’s firewall. Concerned she might deduce his identity, he cuts things off. Meanwhile, Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a descendant of Genghis Khan, arrives in the U.S. to form an alliance with Cranston, hoping his bloodlust will return and they can destroy the world together. Cranston refuses, so Khan uses all of his resources to fight against The Shadow. He sends Margot to assassinate him, but The Shadow is able to break her mind free, in the process revealing his true identity. With that out of the way, The Shadow uses his psychic powers to locate Khan’s hidden building in downtown. Margot and her father, Dr. Reinhardt (Ian McKellen), go with him so they can neutralize the bomb Khan forced Reinhardt to help build, while The Shadow looks for Khan to finish him off.
A big problem The Shadow suffers from is a clunky script at the onset. The bulk of Koepp’s writing is good, even though the story seems even more hackneyed now than ever. The opening scene, however, sets a bizarre tone that never convincingly carried the rest of the film. It’s a little confusing how an American man somehow managed to become a warlord of Tibet, but, then, I don’t know The Shadow’s history so maybe it’s all part of the show. But then, once he’s kidnapped he decides to switch over to being good all because some holy man threatens him with a talking knife? A talking knife voiced by Frank Welker, which is admittedly pretty cool. But still, it’s very hard to buy is my point. If Ying-Ko is this ultra-evil guy with zero remorse or compassion, then his complete 180-degree turn to the good side of things is perplexing. The story would have been better served had they just established The Shadow knew evil so intimately in some other way. It’s like if Star Wars (1977) decided to show Vader turn in the first seven minutes of the movie. There would be no emotional impact. Cranston’s origin seems to be needing a film of its own, so cramming it into the film’s opening seems hurried.
Alec Baldwin is one of those actors who you think would be an obvious choice for a superhero – chiseled jaw, hirsute barrel chest, dark hair, debonair, dashing good looks, witty – but his performance here seems a little… off. It’s either his trademark brand of deadpan, acerbic wit doesn’t translate well to Cranston as a character, or he’s simply not inside his comfort zone playing such a role. Maybe Mulcahy just used all first takes? Whatever the case may be, Baldwin does a fine enough job getting by using his standard arsenal of acting weapons, though there seems to be a clear reason why he’s never gotten a superhero role since.
Also not helping matters: The Shadow himself. What is up with his ridiculous getup? Baldwin obscures his face using a latex/rubber face that appears stoic and non-expressive, making it even more apparent this guy isn’t all that into doing good and being the hero. It really is a weird choice of costume. I mean, the rest of it is perfectly fine; your standard pulpy superhero kind of stuff. But that face! It’s laughably bad.
It’s not all bad. The story is fun, with a madcap 1930’s sensibility that isn’t hokey or rote given the period. Penelope Ann Miller made for a sultry leading lady. There are some commendable FX considering this was coming on the heels of Jurassic Park and the computer-generated boom in cinema. The Shadow makes use of his namesake by showing off some neat powers, like his frequently used ability to dip back into the shadows and cloud the mind of anyone he’s with at the time. And he can do all the usual kung-fu combat that’s expected of a superhero. The fault mainly lies in the story, which starts off somewhat confusingly, then becomes superhero boilerplate until the unsatisfying conclusion. But it’s also got Jonathan Winters in it, and he rules. Ultimately, The Shadow presents concepts that could have been better utilized if this was to have franchise potential.
The Shadow was released on Blu-ray by parent studio Universal in mid-2013, less than a year before this disc was to arrive. Their picture used a VC-1 codec and was soundly considered utter crap by most who had viewed it. Edge enhancement, DNR, poor contrast, weak coloration… not much good was said. Despite the fact I’ve never seen the disc, this new release is no doubt superior in all aspects and it makes you wonder why Universal even bothered to put it out themselves. Shout! Factory has provided what is certainly an upgrade over that disc, with a 1.85:1 1080p picture that, while still unimpressive by most standards, is likely far more faithful to the source than any prior release. The image lacks in fine detail in both background and foreground elements, though facial close-ups do yield a much better level of detail than any other shots. Colors look to be well reproduced; just don’t expect much of a pop in their representation. Black levels are consistent throughout, even set against the constant steely blue hues that permeate nearly every frame of the picture. A healthy layer of grain covers the image, providing a cinematic look. The only instance of noise I noticed was the bridge rescue when we first arrive in New York. Matte work is used often for backgrounds, looking very obvious thanks to a clean image sourced from a well-preserved print. The disc includes English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and 5.1 surround sound options. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a sweeping, Old World-style track that sets the perfect tone for events to come. The sound of gunfire pans effortlessly between all four speakers, as does The Shadow’s disconnected voice. This track certainly makes use of the rear assembly, creating an immersive environment with good separation and fidelity. Dialogue is a bit thin, however, with some voices lacking presence in the mix. The LFE track never provides any rumbling, bombastic moments but there is a supportive low-end to give weight to the track.
This release from Shout! Factory might not be packed to the gills, but they do have one ace in the hole – participation from Alec Baldwin. The disc includes a retrospective featurette, theatrical trailer, and a still gallery.
“Looking Back at The Shadow” is a featurette that runs for 23 minutes and 44 seconds. This piece features interviews with director Russell Mulcahy, actor Alec Baldwin, writer David Koepp, actress Penelope Anne Miller, and production designer Joseph C. Nemec III. Everyone has a tale about their respective position on the film. Baldwin discusses his attraction to the material, especially since Koepp had written it. Nemec makes some interesting revelations, like the desire to shoot the film scope and in black & white, a notion quickly shot down by the studio. Everyone agrees the film was made right on the cusp of CGI breaking through, and as a result they aren’t as exciting as some other films of the era. The film’s theatrical trailer is included, as well as a photo gallery of production, behind-the-scenes, and artwork runs for 8 minutes and 16 seconds, featuring nearly 100 different images.
The Shadow knows a great many things, but one of them isn’t how to kick off a franchise. The film plays nicely as a relic of a cinematic era gone past, though it could have done better with a tighter story and a better costume. Shout!’s release is the best the film is going to enjoy for a long while, so fans would do good to snatch it up.
2 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5