The Shadow is a film I decided to revisit on Netflix recently. I saw it when I was 12 in the theater, and at the time I remember I didn’t really understand it. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but part of it to was that I wasn’t familiar with the radio show and magazine stories it was based on. I’ve gotten to listen to several Shadow episodes on Sirius XM Radio Classics, and I actually do think the concept of this dark hero from the 40’s was actually kind of cool. He starts out as kind of an anti hero, and uses what he knows about the darkness in himself to fight off and haunt those villains who terrorize the city. So my big question after revisiting the film version was…does it live up to the original radio show? Sadly, I don’t think it does.
My main problem with this movie is that it’s played for campiness. Now…I love campy adventure films, but only when it’s appropriate to the subject. I love The Phantom (1996) with Billy Zane because while it is campy, it’s a lighthearted adventure story, with some fun villains, and a daring do-good hero. The camp is part of the fun to the character of The Phantom, and that movie just works for me. I had some fun with The Shadow in the beginning, but the more it went on, the more I realized that this story should have been played more dark and serious. The Shadow in some ways is an early incarnation of Batman, who is a very similar character that lurks in the shadows and is a symbol for striking fear into the hearts of bad guys. Only the Shadow has the added advantage of clouding mens minds and becoming a voice inside their heads. It’s great stuff. But the problem is the camp aspect takes away from that darkness in the character.
That’s just one of this movies problems though. Another issue I had is that the film underutilizes its wealth of great supporting character actors, from Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, James Hong, to Tim Curry. Peter Boyle is especially wasted as someone who is a great comedic actor, as The Shadow’s driver, he’s just not given enough to do to make his character funny or interesting. Ian Mckellen has a few moments as a kind of befuddled scientist, but he mostly walks through the role without really being able to milk it for its worth. And then there’s Tim Curry. Curry is probably given the most to do out of all these actors. The problem is we’re introduced to him at the beginning of the film, and then he disappears for a good hour until he returns as a secondary villain. But there’s no time put in to build him as a menace, and for the most part his character just comes off as annoying. While the villain, Shiwan Kahn manipulates everyone into being his servants using his mind control abilities, Tim Curry’s character is the only one who joins him willingly. But he’s so buffoonish that there’s no real understanding or motivation as to why he would side with the bad guy. He doesn’t know anything about who Kahn is. Why does he care about joining his side? Then there’s John Lone, who plays the main villain Shiwan Kahn, ancestor to Genghis Kahn. I know this actor is popular for playing villains, and I think I remember some of his work at this in the Rush Hour movies. But not enough effort is put into making him into a serious threat, even when his plan is to detonate an atomic bomb in New York City. The worst part of it is, at the end he’s treated as a joke, by being stuck in a padded room in a mental institution as the doctor mocks him for having his mind clouding abilities taken away from him.
|Tim Curry and John Lone in The Shadow|
The movie also falls a bit into deus ex machina at the end, as The Shadow learns to become more powerful with his abilities, but without any of the build up explain why or where he learned how to do this. This is one of my pet peeves about movies with superheroes today, where the hero seems to grow beyond his/her abilities, but without any of the training to support this change. I had this same problem with Snow White and the Huntsman, where she becomes a warrior at the end with no guidance as to how she got there. There were also some things I thought were a little weird, like when Alec Baldwin is made up as The Shadow, he’s made up with a long weird prosthetic nose. When viewed up close, the makeup looks a bit silly.
The movie’s not all bad though, and has a few interesting things thrown in. There’s a crazy, demonic knife with its own personality that I thought was kind of fun, that flies through the air trying to attack Shadow. Some of the production design is cool and very comic booky. But the disappointing thing, like I said, is that the camp of it all works against the movies tone. This film could have been much more dark and brooding. I think even with the threat of the atomic bomb, the plot still could have the advantage of being taken seriously. But that’s not the case, unfortunately, and in the end, just like it’s villain, the whole thing winds up being a joke.