The Shadow (1994)
I have LOVED this movie since I first saw it. I know this was met with mixed reactions upon release, and it was not a real lucrative success in theatres. Frankly, I am baffled by this. The Shadow, to me, is a marvelous film that is perfect Russell Mulcahy style, second only to Highlander. It’s also a film that was never given its due justice on home video, but thanks to iTunes, I can now enjoy this film in beautiful high-definition widescreen! I believe The Shadow to be a solid piece of work in every aspect as well as an immensely enjoyable superhero action film.
In 1930’s China, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is known as Yin-Ko, a murderous opium warlord, who is reformed by a Tibetan mystic who teaches him how to use his keen mental powers to manipulate others. As penance for his past misdeeds, Cranston masquerades as a New York City playboy by day and secretly plays the heroic Shadow by night, staving off evildoers with a network of agents and a cab-driving sidekick (Peter Boyle). A greater challenge arrives when a new enemy presents himself in Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the final descendent of Genghis Khan, who has received training from the same Tibetan master who instructed Cranston. Khan desires to have the once savage Cranston join him in his conquest of the world through use of an atomic bomb, but finds only an adversary. Meanwhile, Cranston encounters the alluring and intriguing Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who also possesses unique psychic abilities that complicate his life, but soon, they join together to combat the powerful Shiwan Khan.
Mulcahy shrouds this whole film in this wonderful mystique and atmosphere that is perfect for this sort of character. The entire presentation of the Shadow reinforces the supernatural element of him – the smoke, illusions, and psychic perceptions. He’s enigmatic to a vibrantly fascinating degree bordering on frightening. I love the lighting trick of enveloping Cranston in shadow when he utilizes his psychic abilities. The mystical and surreal visions we get as we delve into his psyche are stunning. This film really envelopes an audience fully and deeply into Lamont Cranston’s mind which is endlessly fascinating, if not quite disturbing. It also doesn’t bog us down with a lengthy origin story. It’s quite succinct, telling us all we need to know, and even touching back upon it as the film goes on. This way, it can jump right into the meat of the story. While I’m sure something like a 120+ minute film could be made from this material, like a Batman Begins, walking us through Cranston’s change from the barbarous Yin-Ko to the heroic Shadow, I like the straight to the point mentality of this film.
I honestly believe Alec Baldwin was a dead-on perfect casting choice. He has the dapper charm and charisma for Lamont, but with a tinge of shadowy mystique at nearly all times. As Yin-Ko, he is a chilling, violent warlord who is hedonistic in his bloodletting. He never ceases to satiate his lust for barbarism. In the middle of Cranston and Yin-Ko, we find the Shadow where Lamont uses the darkness within to battle evil wherever it hides. I love that Baldwin embraces and envelopes himself in that darkness, and even adopts a bit deeper voice, at times, that is both haunting and unsettling. His eyes are also magnificently piercing with that intense, razor sharp stare. Overall, I think Alec Baldwin put together a stellar and dynamic package here with a darker tinged hero with charisma, charm, and an edginess. His performance here made me believed that Alec Baldwin could also have been a great Bruce Wayne / Batman. He takes a character of complex depth and grim history, and makes him a nearly larger than life entity of justice.
Baldwin has such great chemistry with Penelope Ann Miller forging a unique but very pleasing romantic, lively relationship. That Margo also possesses psychic abilities makes her an intriguing counterpart to Lamont Cranston. She’s not going to be manipulated by his powers, and she can see directly into his mind, picking up his thoughts. It forces them together, much to Lamont’s dismay, but this allows for a unique synergy between them. They never have a love scene, but their bond goes so deeply into their psyches that a love scene would seem almost unnecessary. Miller brings a great deal of spirit and assertion to Margo Lane making her both an elegant beauty and lovely character to invest your time in.
And oh, do I love John Lone as Shiwan Khan. He has such theatrical presence that commands every scene he appears in. He has such passion with his performance embodying Khan’s admiration for Yin-Ko, but also, the lust for violent conquest. He hungers at the thought of the power and the barbarism. He’s a perfect villain who reflects upon Lamont as the man he was and is still haunted by. Khan challenges Cranston as an equal tapping into the deepest, darkest parts of his being, and even being superior to him in certain ways. Shiwan Khan is an intelligent, calculating villain with patience and the merciless will to enact his plans of destruction. It is an immensely satisfying portrayal from a very talented actor.
Tim Curry does a wonderfully pleasant job as the weasely Farley Claymore. He embraces this sleazy, cowardly, power hungry character with great zeal. He’s loving every minute of it, and he creates this great second foil that an audience can’t wait to see get what’s coming to him. Curry is always just so much fun to watch in whatever he does, and this is no exception at all.
This film makes gorgeous use of both digital and optical effects. For one, the filmmakers do an amazing job seamlessly recreating 1930’s New York with various matte paintings, back lots, miniatures, and more. This creates a fully enveloping reality for the film’s setting that has the feel of something made in that time period of cinema. The visual effects used to cloak the Shadow in various instances, and even to morph Baldwin’s face from Cranston to the Shadow are simply fantastic. I can’t really recall any film marrying optical and digital effects. It was either one or the other all the way, but I think Mulcahy saw the value in both technologies utilizing each to their best results. Even Jurassic Park only used CGI dinosaurs when it was necessary, and relying on animatronics for the rest. Here, it all comes together for a stunning and masterful visual experience.
The production design on The Shadow is simply astounding. It has rich, detailed art direction and production values fashioning an elegant 1930’s look. Everything feels authentic to the time with beautifully dressed sets. Khan’s majestic room at the top of the hotel is gorgeously draped with bold Asian designs in fabric, and the Cobalt Club is so elegantly realized. The costumes are excellent, especially those for Penelope Ann Miller who looks classy and gorgeous in those dresses. The look of the Shadow is awesome with the long brimmed fedora, black cloak, overcoat, red scarf, and the twin shoulder holsters. It’s a solid, yet simple iconic look that makes a striking impression. I love how the cloak flows giving the Shadow a floating quality that reinforces the wraith-like glimpses we occasionally get of him. Even the atomic bomb has a great art deco design. This art department really did an amazing job here leaving no detail unpolished.
While the story is rather typical of a superhero film, bad guy wants to conquer the world, it’s really the characters and their motivations that make it different. I always wonder what exactly a villain would do once they’ve taken over the world. What’s left to do when everyone is your enslaved servant? For Shiwan Khan, it’s not about being the ruler of the world, but indulging in the barbarism that comes with that power. He doesn’t want to sit back and enjoy himself. He wants to see the world tear itself apart in savagery and war. He wants to strike terror into humanity, and see it descend into fear and butchery as he pits one army against another army. The added dynamic between Khan and Cranston makes the story all the more compelling to me. When you’ve got a hero and villain so tightly interwoven and connected like this, it creates a great sense of depth and intrigue. Lamont must battle an adversary who is his superior, but gradually, must grow his abilities to eventually match those of Khan.
The film also features some smart, timely, and appropriate humor. Mulcahy balances the darker atmosphere and peril with some quirky moments that never take you out of the vibe he’s running with. The rhythm and chemistry between Baldwin and Miller creates plenty of levity, and there are even a few jovial bits with the now late Jonathan Winters, who portrays Lamont’s Police Commission uncle. Mulcahy keeps the movie fun while still delivering thrills and intrigue on a grand tapestry.
The climax is just stunning from when the Shadow enters the Monolith Hotel to when he and Khan finally clash. It’s a visually awesome sequence with some great effects shots. All the shattering glass creates an amazing dramatically intense impact. There’s a great sense of triumph for Lamont here as he is now taking the fight directly to Khan instead of lagging behind him, and the touches of character growth are excellent. Alongside that, you’ve got some fun yet perilous moments with Margo and her scientist father, portrayed by Ian McKellan, trying to chase down and disarm the ticking time bomb that will nuke the city. It’s fun stuff that still maintains tension in this solid climactic sequence.
Top all of this with a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, and I personally believe you’ve got a great, fun film on your hands. I have never had any criticism for this film as I enjoy and love it thoroughly. It’s a solid superhero film with a retro feel that is realized with vibrant vision by Russell Mulcahy. He was the right choice for The Shadow bringing his great eye for cinematography and fantasy with an air of mystique to this very mysterious and fascinating character. Anyone who has not seen this film is someone I strongly urge to do so. I don’t understand where the negativity came from over this. I think it’s a grand example of Mulcahy’s best work, and what made him the filmmaker that I love. He gets great performances out of everyone in this cast, and just hit the style, tone, and atmosphere just perfect as far as I’m concerned. The Shadow feels like a film that should have been a surefire hit, and be held in great admiration to this day. Instead, it has merely a cult following, and has been saddled with a full screen DVD release. Fortunately, it will finally receive a widescreen Blu Ray release this June. Until then, you can rent it from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.