One of the most enjoyable curiosities of the 90’s was the loud variety of pulp hero movies which sprang from the success of Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989. What started with the “The Crow” soon followed a variety of colorful pulp heroes, ranging from the traditional (Billy Zane in “The Phantom”) to the not-so-traditional (Jim Carrey in “The Mask”). But by far, the most enjoyable of these pulps was 1994’s “The Shadow”, featuring a cast you probably won’t believe in hindsight.
This slightly revisionist take on the radio/comic hero is more “Doctor Strange” than “Doc Savage”. In search of great power, American plunderer Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) goes in search of fame and power in the Orient. He ends being abducted by the mysterious wise man the Tulku, who like most cinematic wise men, lays the psychic smack-down on the future “30 Rock” star. Under the tutelage of the Tulku, Lamont finds redemption – as well as an assortment of Jedi mind tricks.
Flash-forward seven years later and Lamont is a wealthy playboy by day and shadowy crime fighter by night (not unlike the blockbuster which started the pulp hero craze). With every life he saves, he’s adding to a massive network of contacts, including his transportation – a cab driver Moe (played by Peter Boyle of “Young Frankenstein” fame). Unfortunately, Cranston is soon confronted by Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a former Tulku student with aspirations of world domination. With an atomic scientist (Ian McKellen) under his control, Khan seems one step closer to his goal. Now, Cranston must use all his skills – as well as those of the scientists’ intrepid daughter Margo (Penelope Ann Miller) to thwart Khan’s plans.
While “The Shadow” is no “Batman”, it is a lot of fun to watch – which is really all you can ask for in a B-Movie. As we’ve seen time and time again in “30 Rock”, Baldwin’s best work comes from comic timing, thanks in no small part to deadpan delivery. It’s this quality which makes the Shadow’s equivalent to Jedi Mind Tricks particularly effective. Baldwin shares quirky chemistry with Miller, even if her character’s telepathy seems at best a plot hole and at worst a full-blown case of deus ex-machina. It’s always a hoot to watch Peter Boyle, even if his scenes are limited, and Tim Curry also turns up as one of Khan’s henchmen (was this guy in every 90’s movie?)
In retrospect, the best role goes to McKellen, who plays the bumbling abducted scientist Reinhardt. Having watched the actor in more epic roles such as the wizard Gandalf or the supervillain Magneto, it’s amazing how well the veteran actor can switch gears to the Absent-Minded Professor. If you told me in 1994 this guy would be leading the charge to Mount Doom, I would have never believed you.
Overall, “The Shadow” is neither the best nor the worst superhero movie ever made, but it sits comfortably as easily one of the most watchable if least pretentious flicks (even if the climax resembles a scene from “Scanners” minus the gray matter). A remake has been in the works for years – with Sam Raimi’s name presently attached – but even so, this simple flick leaves a tall Shadow to live up to.
Own the Shadow on DVD for $8.99 shipped at Best Buy.