The Shadow (1994) – Directed by Russell Mulcahy – Starring Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, and Frank Welker.
The Shadows knows the evil that lurks in the heart of men!
But he didn’t know he was in such a crappy movie, apparently.
I just do not like THE SHADOW. There is a world of talent involved in this movie, but the sum of all its parts feels incredibly amateurish to me, and the inconsistently cheeky vibe the film is going for too often comes off as corny. I don’t want to bury this movie, though. There’s some stuff here that works, and the Shadow is a culturally important enough character that I don’t want to seem like I’m kicking the old man when he’s down, but this movie is just not very good, as seemingly everything it does well is countered by something it does poorly.
The most important problem is also its biggest strength – Alec Baldwin as the Shadow. This film was released back in 1994 when Baldwin was still earning the bulk of his coin as a serious actor, yet the comedic skills that would later define him are clearly in evidence. They’re also the best part of his portrayal. The film oscillates back and forth between being serious and comedic, but it’s the comedic parts that I gravitate towards. When he and Shiwa Khan (John Lone) interject comments about ties in the midst of their larger discussion of taking over the world, I’m right there with THE SHADOW, but when things turn serious and they have their big fights … which always seem to involve a magical knife (voiced by Frank Welker) … bleh.
And what’s with Baldwin’s face? When he’s Lamont, it’s all normal, but when he’s the Shadow he’s got to put on a fake face that makes him look like his brother Billy, if Billy put on about 100 pounds. Is this supposed to hide his identity? Because the Shadow, you know, turns invisible. And wears a big honking scarf that, you know, covers half his face. And his eyes change colors. And he wears a big hat and hangs out in the … wait for it … shadows. Is this being done because that’s what was done in the pulps? If so, great. Still looks ridiculous, though. Great costume, bad prosthetic face. One step forward, one step back.
Then there’s the supporting characters. On the good side, Frank Boyle. On the bad, Tim Curry. The first seems to be having a great time. Boyle seems to have two basic acting strategies: either he’s conveying his character having a good time, or he’s betraying that he’s having a good time. Either way, I usually have a good time watching him and SHADOW is no exception. Tim Curry is a great actor, too, but here his character is such a campy loser that it’s both hard to take him seriously and hard to enjoy his silliness. Late in the film, when it’s clear to everyone that he’s just a campy lackey, Khan sends him after the Shadow at a critical juncture in the final act. Honestly. That actually happens. And when it does I just roll my eyes and wonder for perhaps the 50th time or 100th time what the producers really meant to convey with this film.
Make no mistake, THE SHADOW was supposed to launch a franchise and all it actually did was barely make its budget back. Was anyone watching the dailies? Didn’t someone – whether it was the solid director, Russell Mulcahy, or producers or some lowly studio assistant desperate to make a name for herself – notice that this film kept working against itself?
More good and bad with supporting actors: I like John Lone’s performance, even if the character is a bit of a turd, but I really don’t like Penelope Ann Miller’s performance, even if I kinda like the character’s spunk and determination. It doesn’t help that Baldwin had more chemistry with Canteen Boy than he does Miller.
Even the way the film starts sets itself up for later failure, as the serious open is later undone by all the cheekiness. We open in post-World War I Tibet, where a really bad-ass American named Lamont Cranston is living as a warlord, doing Very Bad Things to all sorts of people and fingernails. Opening scenes set the mood, of course, and the mood here is that we’re going to get a very dark, very serious film. I mean, Cranston is not an anti-hero, doing bad things to bad people. He’s a villain doing bad things to lesser bad people. Then he’s kidnapped and brought before the Tulku, who knows all about him and tells him this is going to be his redemption story.
And we cut to a title card telling us all about the next seven years in a few lines.
We emerge on the back end of the title card in New York. It’s dark, there are gangsters on a bridge threatening to kill an innocent man who saw something he shouldn’t. Then there’s laughter and a voice and it does not feel like it’s a voice that’s in the movie. It feels like a voice over, which is a problem. Then there’s shooting and punching and more laughing. The Shadow defeats these thugs and then orders the innocent man to go to work as one of his secret spies that are scattered around the city.
That’s a great idea. How does the film reduce it’s effectiveness? First, they have a stupid means of identifying each other. The first speaker says, “The sun is shining” and the second speaker says, “but the ice is slippery.”
Right, because that won’t draw any more attention than, I don’t know, “Did you see the Yankees game last night?” “Joe McCarthy is the best manager ever.”
Oh, and all of the Shadow’s operatives wear a ruby-red ring. Yup. A flashy ring. Right on their hand. No way that could be used to identify fellow secret agents of the mystery man.
More supporting talk: Ian McKellan is pretty good in a small role and Jonathan Winters is pretty misplaced in a small role.
The sets are beautiful but the music is pieced together from whatever Danny Elfman threw away when he was done with Batman. Jerry Goldsmith is a talented dude, but there’s no way someone in production didn’t say to him at some point, “We want the score to sound like Batman.”
One step forward, one step back.
And that’s THE SHADOW – some good, some bad, and very confused. I just don’t enjoy this movie enough that I can imagine ever watching it again unless I had to study it for some reason. Which is why I watched it now, for the first time since I rented it or watched it on cable back in 1995 or so. Because if I’m not watching a movie for work, I’m watching it for enjoyment or engagement and THE SHADOW doesn’t offer either one of those attributes.