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.
By no means am I here to say this film is not worth the scorn it has received from day one. Highlander II: The Quickening absolutely conceptually butchered most everything that made the original fantasy adventure film so amazing. However, there are certain elements that people don’t give this film credit for in spite of its storyline and screenplay failings. Of course, it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, and it has more wrong with it than any one reviewer should torture him or herself to detail. So, I am exercising restraint to not scrutinize everything that is wrong with it. While I will blatantly point out why this film was a failure, I do want to give credit to what I feel are highly admirable qualities for the film. However, the bad outweighs any good you can find in this film, and while so many have covered why, it’s time to offer my perspective and insight into this notorious motion picture.
By the end of the 20th century, the Ozone layer has been damaged severely, and Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the one who brings all the great minds together to create a protective energy shield around the Earth. However, a quarter century later, humanity lives in a perpetual nighttime world as the sun’s rejuvenating, life-giving rays do not penetrate the shield, and the world is in a state of depression. They’ve lost hope in this dreary world. Because of this, Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) and her anti-shield team break into one of the Shield Corporation’s stations, and discover that the radiation above the shield is normal. This means the Ozone layer has healed itself, and the shield is no longer needed. Of course, it is a corporation, and they are just interested in capitalistic greed. Louise is the only one of her team to escape alive. Connor is now an old man, having become mortal after defeating the Kurgan to win ‘The Prize.’ While enjoying a night at the opera, he has flashbacks (similar to those during the wrestling match in the first film), but instead of the Scottish Highlands, he remembers his life as a rebel on the planet Ziest (or from a distant past on Earth, depending on which version you watch). Here is where he met Ramirez (Sean Connery), and battled the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside). For their rebellious acts, they are exiled to different points in time on the planet Earth where they will be immortal, and have to battle other immortals until only one remains. The winner will have the choice to return home to live out the rest of their lives. Despite the fact that MacLeod has been mortal for nearly forty years, and is a matter of months away from inevitable death by natural causes, Katana is not willing to wait any longer to see his enemy die. He sends two comical spiky haired warriors to assassinate Connor, but it backfires making MacLeod immortal again, taking into two Quickenings. One restores his youth, and the other allows him to resurrect Ramirez back in Scotland. By this time, Louise has found Connor in an effort to use his influence to get the shield shut down. Now, with his youth restored, they become sexually involved, and he becomes invested in her mission against the corporation. Meanwhile, Katana decides to dispatch his enemies first hand. He forges an alliance with the major tool that is Shield Corporation CEO David Blake (John C. McGinley) to combat MacLeod, Ramirez, & Louise. With two over the top villains, one more ridiculous than the other, our heroes don’t exactly have their work cutout for them, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.
Okay, this is actually not the worst Highlander film ever made. That dishonor belongs to Highlander: The Source. If you’ve seen it, and I surely hope you have not, I don’t see how you could disagree with that assessment. You thought it was impossible to sink below Highlander II, but you were proven wrong. Regardless of that, here’s why this film is so reviled. At its most basic, this first sequel takes what was pure wondrous fantasy, and turns it into cheap science fiction. There was a simplicity to the mystery behind immortals in what screenwriter Gregory Widen created with Highlander. “It’s a kind of magic,” offered up a sense of charm and wide eyed wonder to the idea. For me, the origin of immortals is unimportant. Through all the other films and the television series, where they came from was never as important as their journey to wherever they were going. The story of Highlander is one of adventure, love, legend, pain, heart, wisdom, and magic on an epic scale that spans countless centuries. Watching how our Clan MacLeod heroes battle through it all, and how it molds them into more seasoned, weathered, and wiser people is what it has all been about. It was never about aliens from another planet, time travel, shield generators replacing the Ozone, or weirdo assassins flying through the air cackling like hyenas. The premise of this sequel was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and no matter which version you watch, it’s still a failure in that department.
The only thing Highlander II has going for it in its defense is that the production was full of problems, conflicts, money issues, and creative differences. That can explain the clusterfuck of bad execution, but still, people signed on board due to the screenplay and premise that this film was built upon. They have no defense for that. Christopher Lambert supposedly would only do the film if they brought back Sean Connery, and that resulted in a very peculiar resurrection. While Lambert and Connery have fine chemistry which provides the film with a good deal of fun, I have to admit that Ramirez was rather shoehorned into this. The entire film would likely flow along far better without him at all, and make room for more relevant elements to be fleshed out. Ramirez has some decent wisdom to impart that works itself into the story by the end, but it would be easy to write around, if needed. Still, it is good entertainment seeing MacLeod & Ramirez interact on more of an equal footing like friends or brothers instead of the student-teacher relationship they had before. Of course, I could’ve done without the out-of-place excessive humor resulting from Ramirez’s inclusion.
Now, Michael Ironside is indeed a fine actor that is able to stretch out into a wider range than he is typically typecast into. The failing of many Highlander feature film villains is that the screenwriters try to make them carbon copies of the Kurgan. They are given similar crazy scenes, over the top characterizations, and even all their names start with a ‘K’ – Katana, Kane, Kell. The television series ultimately became the real treasure trove of fascinating and original villains including my favorite in Xavier St. Cloud. Here, Katana is hard to take seriously most times. He is over the top, almost badly comical in certain scenes, and all for the wrong reasons. The original film handled its characters with weight and respect. It made them dimensional, textured people, or at least with the Kurgan, formidable and frightening. Katana constantly comes off as the bad guy whose already lost, and is just lashing out because of a bruised ego due to that loss. He seems desperate, and incapable of truly being a singular threat. He’s certainly not intelligent, as the film eventually and blatantly reveals, which I will get back to. He doesn’t have the bravado to truly become the adversary he needs to be to confront and take down MacLeod. I do not lay too much fault on Ironside. This is what the screenwriters and filmmakers gave him, and he did what was demanded of him. Still, I know he’s such a better actor, and definitely capable of being a better villain than this film allows him to be. John C. McGinley is the same way. I have seen him put in so many performances over the last twenty or so years that I know he can do better than this. He has even regretted how he portrayed this role. I am always glad when an actor can look back on their work, and make an objective assessment of what they did wrong.
Lambert is his usual charming self, but I feel all the world weariness and haunting sense of Connor MacLeod was lost. On one hand, I can see him becoming a lighter weight character due to having slain the Kurgan, and come to peace with much of what he’s lost. Still, we see that even more heartache has befallen him since then, and while he demonstrates mourning for it, it doesn’t carry with him throughout the film. Even the accent Christopher used in the first film is abandoned, and frankly, would never reappear with Connor ever again. Still, Connor MacLeod remains a character to invest yourself in. He’s still handled in a decently well rounded fashion. It’s the just the horrible “origin of immortals” scenes that really damage it all. It sort of makes all we knew of who Connor was in the first film nearly inconsequential, not to mention, wholly confusing to a mind boggling degree. That plot point alone creates more contradictions and catastrophic problems with the entire established mythos to the point of wondering, “Why the hell did they go forward with it at all?” And again, why they went back to an “origin of immortals” story with Highlander: The Source when it failed so miserably the first time? Of course, there are no good answers to those questions.
Anyway, Virginia Madsen is probably the only genuine, grounded talent in the whole film. She always turns in a solid, pitch perfect performance, and she does so here. She’s a fine love interest with a dash of action ability. She and Lambert work well together, but not amazingly so. It’s well handled and well played, but there is a missing romantic aspect that I think every Highlander love should have. The entire base concept of Highlander has a very romanticized nature to it. There is a sexual encounter here, but there’s not much intimacy between the characters to really forge a deep emotional connection. There’s just too much plot getting in the way for that, and of course, they needed to shove Sean Connery into the mix to detract from that relationship. You see, for every potentially good idea, there’s something else thrown into the film to detract from it. The potential of the elements that could be used to improve the film are limited to make room for something that brings down the film.
For instance, Russell Mulcahy, in these earlier years, always made gorgeous films with such enveloping cinematography. However, where the first film was able to mostly thrive in practical locations and expansive sets, in this film, the first major action sequence that is supposed to be a large area of the city is confined to a soundstage, and it looks like a soundstage. The scope and scale of it is so small, you can’t help but see the limitations of the production, and it detracts from the visual aspect of the feature. Sequences may be shot with great angles, unique lenses, and inspired camera moves, but you can almost always tell when they shot it on a cramped back lot or soundstage. A real city street has depth and scope with block after block of buildings, skyscrapers, and movement crisscrossing in the distance. It has character from its history and people over the decades and centuries. None of that can be seen here, and it only begins to sell how inferior this sequel is to its predecessor. And even for all the improved practical effects, and more visually impressive Quickenings, the bulk of the visual effects (pre-Special Edition) are not up to standards for a film that came out the same year as Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Regardless, when you get outside of that, and onto the truly beautiful and well designed interior scene sets, the production design and cinematography SHINES. Mulcahy’s music video-born artistry finally comes to glorious life, and you see that classic grand Highlander style manifest itself. The lighting is very theatrical, moody, and atmospheric at times. However, it seems a little heavy on the Blade Runner influence in both lighting and production design. Still, big dolly and crane shots really bring forth that epic, large scale cinematic feel which is why I am attracted to Mulcahy’s 1980s & early 1990s films on through to The Shadow.
The score by Stewart Copeland does have a lot of depth and richness. It is highly orchestral bringing a unique identity to this film as it is quite different from Michael Kamen’s score for the original Highlander. Like with Connor’s character, gone are the haunting or mysterious qualities in the music. And while there is essentially no Queen in the soundtrack, we do get a fine closing credits song from Lou Gramm of Foreigner titled “One Dream.” Gramm formed a band called Shadow King at this time, but it was very short lived. The song is hard to find commercially as no soundtrack was released in the US, but I have come to enjoy “One Dream” as much as any other Highlander musical staple. Now, I’ve always been put off that the final battle between MacLeod & Katana has next to no music behind it at all. Not to mention, it’s a rather brief duel. Anti-climactic indeed. It’s almost as if it’s there because it needs to be, and they just want to wrap up the film as quickly as possible. There’s no epic quality to it, no passionate intensity. It’s a bunch of dull clanging back and forth for a few moments. Still, the score has gained some good respect from the franchise’s fans, and Stewart Copeland is an exceptionally talented and diverse musician from his work as the drummer for The Police on through to many other film and television scores. He surely gave this feature a wide, full sound that may have been more than it deserved. It’s not always entirely to my liking, but I can respect the musical quality and artistry of it.
What I can’t respect is the creative process behind the idea of this movie. Okay. They wanted to do a sequel. That’s understandable, but that’s also the problem. The first film ends definitively. Connor wins ‘The Prize,’ and thus, there are no more immortals left in the world. There’s really no credible way around that ending, and making a prequel about Connor is foolish because there’s no mystery of who would survive. Gregory Widen wrote a fantastic, self-contained screenplay with no allusions for a sequel. Even still, how these filmmakers conjure up the idea of all immortals being aliens from another planet shatters all logic because everything they develop in the sequel contradicts everything from the original film. In later revised cuts of Highlander II, the immortals are changed to being from Earth’s distant, forgotten past. So, now they are time travelers which makes even less sense, but as I concluded sometime ago, there is absolutely no way you can re-cut this film to have either premise make any real sense. Every fiber of this plot is fundamentally flawed from every angle. The plot holes are atrocious, and are blatantly stated by the characters in the movie itself! How do you write a screenplay with such plot holes, do nothing to mend them, but have enough awareness about them to have the characters spell them out in detailed discussion? It sounds like a screenwriting paradox that could unravel the very fabric of the universe, or drive one totally insane trying to make sense of it. MacLeod states to Katana that he was ready to settle down and die peacefully, but then, Katana sends his cackling henchmen to change all that. Now, he’s immortal again, just where he didn’t want to be. Katana would’ve had his victory of MacLeod dying if he just sat on his ass and did nothing! Even his idiot henchman caught onto this, and Katana just slaps him in the face for having a rational thought.
The theatrical cut even made Russell Mulcahy walk out of the cinema within fifteen minutes. The editing in it was an abomination of continuity. They tried splicing together two different duels for one massive end battle, but it features Connor using two different swords in two different outfits. Subsequent re-edits such as the Renegade Version or Special Edition had more linear coherence, but hardly resolve any of the base issues with the movie. Frankly, as I said, that is impossible.
Flushing away the adventurous fantasy for idiotically conceived science fiction explanations leaves a horrible, bitter taste in any fan’s mouth. Beyond just the irresolvable continuity contradictions, this is a contradiction of all that Highlander was based upon, and later re-established itself as through the television series. Highlander II: The Quickening became so reviled that it was disassociated from all continuity. That’s not a regular occurrence for a franchise when millions of dollars are poured into a feature film, but it seems like it was an experience many would have rather forgotten in part, if not in whole.
While there are admirable technical qualities in the film, there is surely nothing within it that can hope to redeem this epic failure. It’s become legendary and notorious to the point where it’s awfulness has transcended through pop culture as a benchmark for a bad film. Christopher Lambert remains a solid lead for the franchise with an enjoyable performance, but as with so many aspects of the movie, it’s more indulgent in itself than really bringing something memorable to the table. Connery’s presence alone is self-indulgent, and Katana is a generally weak, one-dimensional villain played up more for laughs than as a cunning, intimidating adversary. The producers can continue to update the visual effects and refine the editing, but it’s only making a pile of garbage easier to look at. This is not a film where I say watch it for yourself to make your own determination apart from its reputation. Even on its own merits, it’s not a good movie. In itself, it has unforgivable failings, obvious limitations, and baffling errors in logic, to say the extreme least. It certainly wasn’t the only controversial misstep in Highlander, but it was the first. And for that, it will remain a stigma on the franchise for all time.