Monday, April 19, 2021

I've been looking for an original sin, one with a twist and a bit of a spin


Directed by Russell Mulcahy
Written by David Koepp

Spoiler alert: mild

So here's a question: of the small movement of Batman knock-offs produced throughout the first half of the 1990s, which is the most openly desperate?  It seems like it couldn't be anything besides Dick Tracy, which, in every respect but hairsplitting (namely, the specific way it approaches a comic aesthetic), comes off damn near a Batman clone; but since every element of its production timeline contradicts this supposition, I suppose its apparent desperation doesn't "count."  Is it The Rocketeer, then?  Though it's plainly adjacent, and probably wouldn't have existed without Batman, it's too sunny, too optimistic, and too good-time-at-the-movies-fun to be considered a copy rather than just a genre-mate.  Is it The Phantom?  That movie's more interested in knocking off Indiana Jones.

That leaves us with The Shadow, something of the Flash Gordon or John Carter to Batman's Star Wars.  Despite its source material being a blatant antecedent for Kane and Finger's Bat-Man, it's hard to think of its modern film adaptation as anything but a knock-off.  Released in 1994 and disappointing Universal when it returned only $48 million on a $40 million budget, The Shadow seems to have confirmed that its small subgenre would never again achieve anything close to a Batman-sized cultural impact or profit until it transformed into the superhero film as we know it today (though this particular breed somehow kept itself going long enough for The Phantom to get made).

The Shadow, though, was the only one of the mini-Batmen that really wants you compare it to Batman directly, and somebody must have vainly hoped that it would indeed replicate Batman's landmark success.  Why anybody harbored this belief, I can't say: Walter Gibson's pulp magazine hero bears a recognizable name, but only barely, and by 1994 the Shadow could claim precious little mindshare, with nothing like the popularity of Batman's TV show or the critical reputation of The Dark Knight Returns, nor even anything like Tracy's or the Phantom's continued perseverance in newspapers.  Over the previous two decades, The Shadow had managed little more than a couple of very-small-time comics.  The last time the Shadow had been in any motion picture had been nearly two generations earlier, in a repackaged 1958 television pilot; perhaps the last time the Shadow had been in anything like a major motion picture was a generation before that, in an eponymous 1940 serial.  Producer Martin Bregman had been trying to make a movie out of him since 1982, but this amounted to a runaround until Batman hit big.  That's when The Shadow began in earnest, gifted with a significant budget and some of the most talented artists a superhero movie had so far been blessed withthough, depending on which of his movies you're looking at, its director was not necessarily one of them.

Sam Raimi had been attached, but this never quite clicked; that's where 1990's Darkman came from, effectively a consolation prize offered Raimi by Universal when they didn't see him delivering a hit.  For unknown, perhaps unknowable reasons, the man they thought could was Russell Mulcahy, whose entire feature directorial career had consisted (and still consists) almost exclusively of financial flops.  The closest he'd gotten to a true "hit" (no matter how highly I personally rate his out-the-gate masterpiece, Razorback) had been RicochetRicochet had at least made money; the closest to an actual phenomenon had been Highlander, but only in the sense that a lot of people had caught up with Highlander on home video, and it was agreeable enough to spawn sequels, notably Highlander II, one of the great calamitieswhich Mulcahy had also directed.  They gave him $40 million anyway to film the tenth or twentieth Shadow script, which, when it finally came time to make it, bore the sole credit of David Koepp.

The Shadow has undeniable weaknesses, and while it's hard to tell where Koepp stops and unlucky production difficulties come in (above all an earthquake that trashed a major set and compelled Mulcahy to reconceive the climactic battle), the script can be one of them.  But it's also inventive, and impressively severe when it comes to what it thinks its themes are, which it sometimes even manages to successfully gesture at, despite a director who keeps swinging arbitrarily between only slightly-overheated pulp and outright kitsch.  Partly, this is just because that's Mulcahy's personality as a filmmaker.  Partly, I expect, it's because he was being jerked around in turn, by a studio that couldn't have been that thrilled by the surprisingly dark journey Koepp wanted to take his pulp hero on.

The journey's still there, though, beginning in Tibet in the 1920s.  For now, there's only Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin), who has, by obscure means and for no apparent reason other than the bloodlust that taints his soul, risen to become Yin-Ko, an opium warlord in the wreckage of the post-revolutionary Chinese frontier.  And this is, all of it, Koepp's contribution to the legendarium (though "Yin-Ko" is a canny little nod to the Gibson magazine stories), positing a life of immense and unforgiveable sin that preceded Cranston's rebirth, which also explains how the wealthy Cranston became Jedi Batman.  One fateful night, then, Yin-Ko is snatched from his palace and delivered up the Tibetan highlands to the holy man known as the Tulku, who explains that Cranston has a destiny, and that once he has honed Cranston's natural clairvoyance, he shall refashion him into good's weapon against evil.  However, since there was evidently no evil worth fighting in China in the 1930s, Cranston returns home to the ugliest den of iniquity on the planetNew York, NY, naturally.  When we catch up with him, seven years later, he has earned the sobriquet "the Shadow," and through his two-fisted, dual-wielding, mind-clouding exploits, plus a network of informers so large that they literally have their own bureaucracy, he's become the cackling bane of the whole criminal underworld.

Everything between "the Tulku" and "bane of the underworld" happens in a text crawl, which is somehow both disappointing and entirely necessary.  (The version of this story, I suppose, that does not dispense with it in a text crawl is just called Batman Begins, which is not a point in favor of lingering on Cranston's Himalayan training.)  The Shadow has a lot of material to get through, and it needs to get to it nownamely, the arrival in New York of the Tulku's other student, Shiwan Khan (John Lone), self-styled last descendant of Genghis Khan, a claim that I expect would startle numerous Central Asians.  But perhaps he means that symbolically, for Shiwan and his retinue of Mongols intend to finish what their forefather began and complete the conquest of the world by kidnapping War Department physicist Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellan, of all people!), and, through Shiwan's psychic powers and the assistance of Reinhardt's duplicitous assistant Claymore (Tim Curry), compel Lane to build for the Khanate an arsenal of mighty atom bombs a decade ahead of schedule.  But he also drops in on Yin-Ko, as he's a big fan of his work.  Rebuffing Shiwan's temptation, the Shadow vows to uncover his mad plot.  In the process Cranston picks up Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), Reinhardt's daughter, as a sidekick and a complication, for besides her obvious desire for the handsome millionaire, Margo also has the same gift of second sight as he has, making her almost as dangerous to him as Shiwan Khan.

That's also Koepp's innovationMargo was introduced to the magazines for little reason other than to have a chick aroundwhich is why it's curious that he effectively drops that plot, since when Margo does inevitably discover the Shadow's secret identity, it's through different means entirely, and her psychic powers aren't really used outside of a way to make her interactions with Cranston more fractious, never quite figuring into the plot except once (when she gets an emergency vibration as Cranston chokes down a few thousand cubic meters of water inside a deathtrap).  It comes offto our cynical modern eyesa little bit like something Koepp was seeding for a sequel that never happened.  That's odder still, because nothing else about The Shadow feels like "a sequel" could've even been contemplated: in every other respect, The Shadow wants to be the definitive take on its version of the Shadow, closing the book in the process.  Astonishingly, it wants to get deep with its Shadow, constantly nodding in the direction of a violent vigilante who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men because he's uncomfortably familiar with the evil lurking in the heart of one man already, presently confronted with the embodiment of his past in Shiwan Khan, the man he once was and never quite stopped being, who can also see into his heart, and knows that Yin-Ko's still there.

Despite everything in Koepp's screenplay being about this, it is almost all notional, presented in little chunks and never quite managing to feel like the movie is about it except maybe for a couple of minutes at a time.  I'm not even sure that's a problem, exactly, but it absolutely deranges the film; Mulcahy's goal, meanwhile, was just to make a throwback to old serials except with shiny modern technology and technique, and his ambitions topped out at a fun, stylish actioner about an iconic crimefighter busting heads and cracking wise.  Baldwin, Miller, and Lone all follow suit, and as far as Miller and Lone go, this works just fine: Margo exists mainly to inject a certain amount of horniness into the movie, and hence Miller's role demands only that she slink around in silver evening gowns, talk PG-13 dirty in romantic-comedic repartee with Baldwin, and surprise Cranston by being the only mind he can't cloud; Lone, armed with Shiwan Khan's villainy, can go ridiculously broad (which indeed he does, quite well), and serve the function the screenplay's laid out for him perfectly, with scene after scene of wicked evil, many of them revolving around Shiwan's infinite self-amusement at his ability to telepathically shove people into suicide for even the smallest insult.  Lone expresses so much happiness at his antagonist's cruelty that these sequences never get repetitive, even though it happens at least four times.  (My favorite involves a very knowing, very grim, very funny reference joke to Gold Diggers of 1935.)

With Baldwin, though, the seams slightly start coming apart.  Baldwin plays every single beat in exactly the same tenor-and exactly how you'd expecta slick, smarmy, archly-funny playboy, whether the scene involves him sparring with his paramour or with his archenemy, or even if it involves him recounting a terrifying nightmare (which was indeed fairly terrifying when we saw it!), where he tore off his face to find Shiwan Khan inside.  There's a dark, mythic Shadow in Koepp's script that Baldwin is unwilling to accessor incapable of accessing, and the distinction between "Lamont Cranston" and "Jack Donaghy" is mostly just "fifteen years."  Mulcahy appears simply uninterested in it, with none of the lip service paid to the Shadow's bloodthirstiness really paid off.  (He's arguably less thrilled by his own violence than Batman, certainly Batman Returns's Batman, and only ever kills on purpose once, in a nasty sequence that is nothing short of a telepathic execution.  It comes oddly late, and The Shadow required more of this earlier if it wanted its hero wrestling with his monstrousness; the only thing that points to the Shadow enjoying his job too much otherwise is the traditional mocking laughter).  It leaves a damnably odd movie, strangely reluctant to be what its screenplay keeps saying it is.

Shockingly, that's never as much of a problem for The Shadow as it obviously should be.  Even with a director and star arrayed in lockstep against anything resembling psychological depth, this Shadow still retains more heft than, say, Dick Tracythere's at least a psychology to allude toand, hell, "Jack Donaghy, vigilante" is hardly the most unpleasant place to find yourself.  (Tweaked just slightly, Baldwin's Shadow would be an unsettling sociopath, and maybe that would've worked, too.)  Mulcahy, for his part, finds much more to be interested in with the other ideas in Koepp's script, and I think this is what keeps me in love with The Shadow, despite fundamental flaws.  For starters, it probably comes as close as anything ever will, mainly because I do not think anyone will try it ever again, to reimagining the racism out of orientalist archetypes (it does a better job than the cowardly erasure of Iron Man 3 and, well, Batman Begins), and it often feels like "yellow peril" was something Koepp consciously rejected; the closest it gets to the accoutrements of a straight-up Fu Manchu is its hero.  Needless to say, it still isn't complete, and, anyway, Mulcahy's insistence that he get Universal's money's worth out of his "Mongol warrior" armor suits by having Shiwan's henchman run around New York in medieval garb using medieval weapons is the one place where The Shadow clearly trips over the line separating "camp" from "stupid."

But in a way, that's just The Shadow overplaying its greatest strengththat is, the way Mulcahy prosecutes the film as a perpetual blast of the corniest, silliest, most wonderful ideas about 30s superheroics possible, from the intoxicatingly unnecessary joy that he takes in chasing the pneumatic tubes of the Shadow's operation through CGI and across a model of New York at the cost of tens or hundreds thousands of dollars just to put it on screen, to the sheer steampunk appeal of 30s villains hacking together their own A-bomb, to the legitimately trippy reveal of Shiwan Khan's base of operations, which is itself the most successful effort of Koepp's script to showcase the potential of the mystic power that the Shadow and his nemesis trade in.  (In line with my "Jedi Batman" remark, it is arguably cooler than anything any Star Wars ever did with the Force.)

In between the big stuff, Mulcahy spends his time luxuriating in a richly-built 1930s world, more in debt to the idea of the era, mediated through movies (and, yes, serials), than anything like the real decade, though nonetheless with more of a footing in reality than its immediate antecedents.  (Batman's Gotham feels like a dream of The City; The Shadow feels like a dream of New York City.)  The Shadow was stacked with indispensable collaborators, from Batman's own costume designer Bob Ringwood to production designer Joe Nemec, a Cameron veteran spreading his wings now to create a whole Art Deco world, to the great cinematographer Stephen Burum.  It's through Burum that Mulcahy gets to play with all manner of expressionistic shadows, particularly in some adorably hoary uses of unmotivated darkness and keylighting as a shorthand for Cranston's powers, though the most impressive tool Burum deploys is some very precise eyelighting that puts fire into the reddish-black contacts Baldwin and Lone wear when they're throwing those powers around, but also lingers even in the "quiet" scenes, and even in otherwise pitch black shots, frequently reminding you of the Shadow's latent ferocity whether Baldwin can be bothered to or not.  Probably the most indispensable of all, however, is composer Jerry Goldsmith, because I can't imagine a bad movie with a score this good.

When your freshest comparison is Danny Elfman cobbling together his Tracy score out of first drafts for his Batman score, Goldsmith's Shadow score will knock your fucking socks off.  Somehow resisting the temptation to do much orientalism (he makes productive feints in that direction), Goldman also resists the urge to ape Elfman and Batman too much, leaning instead on his own idiosyncrasies, with a remarkably evocative "Shadow" theme that is at turns soaringly Romantic and creepily mysterious, a meld of orchestral and electronic sounds, while Shiwan is followed by woodwind howls in recognition of the chaos he serves.  Goldsmith's score is the score to the dark, cool, even spiritually urgent Shadow that Koepp actually wrote, and the film's ability to transcend its own indifference to the deeper currents within it is entirely down to Goldsmith's contribution.  (An original big band piece, "Some Kind of Mystery," also makes its way into the soundtrack, though it's forgettable and only helps set a 30s mood.  On the other hand, it doesn't hurt my estimation of The Shadow one bit that the film also stays true to the 90s by splashing a wholly incongruous pop song over the creditsI wish movies still did that!and that this "original" song is a full-on, ten-outta-ten Jim Steinman banger, "Original Sin."  In truth a cover of a song he first did for his unsuccessful venture with Pandora's Box in the 80sMeat Loaf would inevitably do his version laterI think it's uncontroversial to say that the Taylor Dayne version here is the best of the three.)

What this means, and I'll be the first to admit it, is that The Shadow is a film best appreciated after you've already broken it down into its individual elementsthe cool ideas, the great craftrather than taken as any fully coherent whole.  Even so, I've always liked The Shadow, and I like it more now than I did then, especially now that "superheroes in an artful recreation of their original context" is so much more of a novelty than it was in 1994.  It's an absurdly easy watch even with the weaknesses I didn't talk about: everyone will tell you, and everyone is right, that it's a little light on action (up to and including a penultimate "battle" where henchman literally just vanish, like Mulcahy forgot they were there).  But it does so much so well, in a tidy 108 minute runtime, with so much propulsive enthusiasm behind itand whatever else you can say about them, none of the movies obscured by the shadow of the bat ever lacked enthusiasmthat I will never think of it as anything less than a minor but underrated classic.

Score: 8/10

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