Film Review: The Phantom (1996)

Release Date: June 7th, 1996
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Written by: Jeffrey Boam
Based on: The Phantom by Lee Falk
Music by: David Newman
Cast: Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Patrick McGoohan, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Casey Siemaszko, John Capodice

Boam Productions, The Ladd Company, Paramount Pictures, 100 Minutes

Review:

“When darkness rules the earth, America’s in financial ruin. Europe and Asia are on a brink of self-annihilation. Chaos reigns. Like I’ve always said, there is opportunity in chaos. And so, my brothers, I give you… [raises out the first skull] The skull of Touganda. This skull is one of three. When all three skulls are united, they will produce a force more than any army on Earth.” – Xander Drax

A lot of people, myself included, slept on this movie when it came out because even for 1996, it looked hokey and cheap. Granted, it was actually made by a larger studio and it was a more expensive picture than one might think.

I feel like the tone was off for what was becoming the popular trends at the time and that this would’ve fared much better, half a decade earlier. But even really solid comic book movies like The Rocketeer and The Shadow struggled to find an audience before this flick was even greenlit.

While I’ve seen this a few times over the years, I think there are things within it that one can appreciate that would’ve most likely been overlooked in 1996.

To start, this is just a fun adventure movie, a popcorn picture at its core that features good actors, cool characters and period piece sets that show you where most of the budget went.

There is a very pulpy vibe to this and it almost calls back to the tone of old school swashbuckling epics without having any real swashbuckling in it.

It mostly taps into the film serial genre that helped make The Phantom character more of a household name in the ’30s through ’50s. For modern audiences, it will play like a superhero picture with elements of an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean vibe to it.

While it’s not particularly well-acted, the core cast still give good performances that really show that they’re committed to this film’s pulpy goodness. Treat Williams’ over-the-top antics as the villain are superb and I liked him immensely in this. I also thought that Billy Zane made a really solid Phantom and Kristy Swanson was a good choice for her role. I can’t say that this is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ best work but she did look like she was having a blast hamming it up in this goofy but stylish movie.

The Phantom is far from being a classic in the superhero genre but its much better than a lot of the other offerings in the pre-Dark Knight and MCU era. Frankly, I wish it would’ve done well enough to have had a few sequels but since this felt somewhat dated for 1996, I can’t imagine any sequels connecting with the audience of that era.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other comic book adaptations of the era like The Shadow, Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer and the early, cheap Marvel attempts at live-action.

Film Review: Dead Heat (1988)

Release Date: May 6th, 1988
Directed by: Mark Goldblatt
Written by: Terry Black
Music by: Ernest Troost
Cast: Treat Williams, Joe Piscopo, Darren McGavin, Lindsay Frost, Vincent Price, Keye Luke, Robert Picardo, Professor Toru Tanaka, Shane Black

Helpren/Meltzer, New World Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“[He shuts the porno mag the clerk’s being reading] Sorry to interrupt your erection.” – Det. Doug Bigelow

Dead Heat is greatly underappreciated. That’s probably because it bombed in the theater and then got brushed aside and barely even made a blip on the cable TV radar in the ’90s. By then it probably seemed really outdated and so cheesy that even late night movie shows didn’t really touch it.

I actually saw this on VHS around 1990 or so and thought it was pretty cool but it just never reemerged anywhere else until it popped up on streaming services within the last couple of years.

I was glad that it was most recently featured on Joe Bob Brigg’s The Last Drive-In, as it needs to be discovered and showcased for a new generation and for the old generation that might’ve missed it.

The film is written by Terry Black, the older brother of Shane.

Shane Black had already made waves after writing Lethal Weapon and The Monster Squad while also working on Predator and Night of the Creeps. Older brother kind of followed little brother here, as the story for Dead Heat is like a mash up of some of those other movies in how it features an action heavy buddy cop story with elements of horror and a bit of slapstick comedy.

That being said, the script was really creative and it provided a movie with a lot of really cool scenes and monster encounters: most notably the zombie animals that came to life despite being halfway butchered.

These scenes worked so well though because the special effects were solid. I mean, this was made by New World and thus, the production operated under Roger Corman economics. Despite that, the practical effects of the monsters looked great.

Additionally, some of the other effects were impressive too, such as the scene where Lindsay Frost decays into nothingness.

The film stars Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo as the two buddy cops but it also stars a great villain duo that features Darren McGavin and legendary Vincent Price. Everyone played well off of each other and all the core actors looked like they were having fun hamming it up and making this bonkers movie.

This is such a weird and unique picture that more people really should check it out. It’s amusing, enjoyable and deserving of more recognition than it initially received.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other goofy horror comedies of the ’80s like the first two Return of the Living Dead MoviesC.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud, TerrorVision, etc.

Film Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Also known as: C’era una volta in America (original Italian title)
Release Date: May 20th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, Darlanne Fluegel, Mario Brega, Estelle Harris, James Russo, Louise Fletcher (only in 2012 restoration)

The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, Rafran Cinematografic, Warner Bros., Titanus, 229 Minutes (original), 139 Minutes (original US release)

Review:

“Age can wither me, Noodles. We’re both getting old. All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won’t have those anymore. Tear up that invitation.” – Deborah Gelly

I tried watching this about fifteen years ago but if I’m being completely honest, it bored me to tears. And I’m speaking as a guy that has a deep love for the films of Sergio Leone, a man who sits among the best in my Holy Trinity of Motion Picture Directors. The other two being Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, naturally.

So years later, I felt that I really needed to revisit this, as maybe I wasn’t in the right head space and because I generally have a hard time sitting through movies that feel like they could take up an entire day. Well, this took up an entire afternoon and I did have to take a halftime break and make a ribeye.

But regardless of that, I really enjoyed this picture and I can’t deny that it is one of Leone’s best. In fact, I may have to edit my rankings of his films, as I would now put this third behind The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West.

What’s interesting, is that this movie has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy than Leone’s own pictures, which were mostly top tier spaghetti westerns. But like his westerns, he also employs the talents of musical maestro Ennio Morricone, who gives real life to the motion picture full of mostly understated performances.

This movie is incredibly slow paced but it’s that kind of slow pace that is more like a slow simmering stew of perfection than the chef accidentally setting the burner too low and walking away.

As far as the acting goes, this is a superb film. Robert De Niro and James Woods own every scene that they’re in. However, the supporting cast is also stupendous, especially the child actors, who play the main characters in lengthy flashback sequences.

This is also compelling in that it is full of unlikable, despicable characters yet you are lured into their world and you do find yourself caring where this is all going and how life will play out for these characters. You never like them but that’s kind of what makes this story so intriguing. With The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, there were things you could connect with and respect about the man, despite his crimes. In Once Upon A Time In America, you don’t really have moments with these characters that humanizes them all that much, in fact it does just the opposite of that. I can see where that might be bothersome to some people but we also live in a world where people saw Walter White from Breaking Bad as some sort of hero.

Once Upon A Time In America also shines in regard to its visual components. It’s a period piece that covers different periods, all of which come off as authentic, even if the city sometimes looks more like it was shot in Europe (some of it was) than truly being Depression Era New York City. But the sets and the location shooting all worked well and this picture boasts some incredible cinematography. It should be very apparent to fans of Leone that he’s taken what he’s learned making fabulous movies and found a way to perfect it, in a visual sense, even more with this, his final picture.

There’s not a whole lot I can pick apart about the movie, other than the pacing being slow. But again, it’s not a painful slow and it certainly isn’t full of pointless filler and exposition. Every frame of this movie needs to exist. But maybe take some breaks or just approach the film like you’re binge watching a short season of a TV show.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Sergio Leone’s other films but this has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films.