Based on Lee Falk's comic strip character which originally appeared in the mid 1930's (published by King Features Syndicate and widely considered to be the first comic book superhero), Simon Wincer's 1996 big screen adaptation of The Phantom took a pretty serious thrashing from a lot of critics when it played theatrically but has rightfully found a fairly loyal audience in the years since. It's not a film that plays too well as a serious treatise on the morality of vigilantism or which makes any sort of broad social statement, but it is a fun, exciting and colorful film full of brave heroes, nasty villains and plenty of excitement. It's essentially a pulp story come to life, and it has a lot in common with the almost universally loved Indiana Jones films (in fact, it was written by Jeffrey Boam who penned Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade).
The film, set in 1938, follows the exploits of a man named Kit Walker (Billy Zane) who is the twenty-first in a long line of crime fighting men who have operated under the mantle of The Phantom. Dressed in purple tights with a black mask covering his eyes, The Phantom operates out of a super cool Skull Cave where he fights the crime that seems to constantly threaten the jungle where he lives. When he gets word that a scheming industrialist named Xander Draz (Treat Williams) is on the hunt for three sacred skulls believed to give great powers to the man who can assemble them all together, he has no choice but to rush into action.
Of course, this wouldn't be much of a superhero movie without a lady friend in the picture, and she appears in the form of Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), the niece of a newspaper mogul who sends her off to the jungle to get one of the skulls before it lands in Xander's evil hands. Complicating matters is the fact that Diana's past is tied to Kit's own history. And then there's the fact that Xander is in cahoots Sala (Catharine Zeta Jones) and with the evil Sheng Brotherhood, a local gang of pirate types whose history goes back all the way to the very first Phantom. Adventure, intrigue, and swashbuckling high jinks ensue.
While the whole thing might feel like one big, goofy cliché after another, you've got to hand it the filmmakers for nailing the look and tone of the source material. Featuring some ridiculously good production design (how great a lair would the Skull Cave be?) and nice attention to detail, The Phantom always looks fantastic, no matter how silly it all gets. Zane fits into the role fairly well, playing the mysterious tough guy with as much machismo as he needs and very much looking the part throughout. His relationship with Swanson's Diana may not be a romance for the ages but it's perfectly sufficient as far as moving the plot along and accomplishing what it needs to accomplish. Her performance is fine, and she too very much looks the part of a would be pulp heroine - once you see her you kind of think to yourself, yeah, she should be hanging out with someone like The Phantom, she just looks right for it. Throw in Williams and Zeta Jones as the bad guys and you wind up with a cast more than capable of handling all that the film asks of them.
Another part of the reason that the film is as fun as it happens to be is because it's very much a throwback to a different time period. It has an innocence and naivety to it that works well in the film's favor. It's action packed without being overly violent, it's romantic without being overly sexual, and it's very much a thirties era comic book come to life, right down to the transitions. Despite the fact that it is more or less a family film, the movie's merits may be lost on today's younger audience, but that doesn't mean anyone who appreciates a fun pulp adventure won't find this one plenty entertaining. Children of the eighties may remember the character from his revival in the animated series Defenders Of The Earth or his early nineties animated revival in the future set Phantom 2040, but this big screen adaptation is more in lines with the original comic strip than either of the cartoon incarnations. There isn't much to the plot here but there's enough to the story to string us along from one big set piece to the next and while it certainly could have been better in the scripting department, but if you want spectacle, drama, action and adventure without having to think about it before, during or afterwards the movie delivers.
The Phantom arrives on Blu-ray in a 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p AVC encoded transfer on this Blu-ray disc that looks pretty gosh darned good. A fine coat of grain is present throughout the film but there isn't much in the way of actual print damage to complain about, the source material appears to have been in pretty good shape. Detail is considerably stronger than it was on the standard definition release while black levels and color reproduction are both nice and strong. Eagle eyed viewers might spot some minor edge enhancement in a couple of spots but any digital tinkering in that regard seems to be miniscule. Texture in the costumes and clothes is much more noticeable while fine detail in close up shots is at times very impressive. Things look pretty good here, there's not much to complain about at all.
The primary sound mix on this disc is an English language DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix that makes good use of the surround channels to provide a pretty immersive listening experience. Dialogue is well balanced and easy to understand while gunshots, airplane engines and vehicles all sound nice and strong with a solid low end punch to them. Ambient and background noise is well placed and well timed here, you'll notice it quite frequently which adds to the experience, while the high end manages to be distinct without ever sounding shrill. The score also has some nice resonance to it, spread out here as it is and making good use of the front and rear channels to help accentuate the goofy action playing out on screen.
Aside from some very basic menus, chapter selection and a book marking option the only extras on this release are a theatrical trailer for the feature and a promo spot for other Lionsgate releases. No interviews, no featurettes, no commentary tracks - definitely a disappointment, as a retrospective look at the film's history could certainly have been a lot of fun.
If you're a fan of the film, this Blu-ray offers a strong enough improvement in terms of audio and video to make it worth the upgrade, but be forewarned that it is almost a barebones presentation so extra features junkies won't find anything here to dig into. The movie itself is still fun entertainment, and despite what the film's detractors may say, it's not a half bad adaptation of the old comic book that it's based on. Sure it's hammy and over the top but it's gorgeous to look at and plenty entertaining. Recommended for fans, but those who don't already know they want it might be best served with a rental first - to make sure it's their kind of superhero movie before plunking down some hard earned money on this great big loveable hunk of cheese.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.