(NOTE: I’ve decided to go back to cover two Summer Flings that I regret having skipped.)
July 1, 1994
Look, I can’t say for sure what audiences were yearning for in the summer of ’94, but it might have been a cartoon about lions and it might not have been a super hero movie set in the 1930s, based on a character from serialized radio dramas. Here is yet another entry in my beloved genre of old-timey-super-hero-movie-that-totally-failed-at-the-box-office-but-I-thought-it-was-pretty-good. I suppose THE SHADOW seemed like a more sensible bet than some of them, because it was at least a character with vague name recognition and noir influences like BATMAN (in fact some believe the first Batman story was a rip-off of a Shadow story called “Partners of Peril”).
At first glance The Shadow (Alec Baldwin, THE GETAWAY) does seem like kind of a Batman-esque character. He’s a rich handsome guy named Lamont Cranston who lives a secret life, going out at night as a scary figure, fighting criminals. He doesn’t have a cape, but a black cloak that serves the same purpose, plus a hat and a mask over the mouth and two guns. And hidden in an alley is the entrance to his Batcave-like secret base.
But then he’s got this whole other thing going where after he saves people’s lives he compels/scares them into becoming his agents. So he has a cabbie (Peter Boyle, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE) who is his loyal 24-7 on-call driver, and other people across the city that he can call on for their expertise or get a heads up from.
And then there are his powers. I believe about the only gadget he uses is a flashing communicator ring – otherwise he’s operating on ancient magic. I don’t know if it’s all just hypnotizing people, but he seems to be able to be invisible, or turn into a shadow. He can “cloud men’s minds,” Jedi Mind Trick style, making people forget things they saw or even decide to jump out a window. He gets a new girlfriend named Margo Lane (likably flustered Penelope Ann Miller, DEAD BANG) who he has a telepathic link to, so he calls to her across town when he’s in trouble. In a way it’s more like DOCTOR STRANGE than Batman.
One sign that wasn’t gonna catch on, that is also why it’s special: the character is immediately pretty fuckin weird. The opening deliberately throws us for a loop by introducing Baldwin in Tibet with long hair, going by the name Yin-Ko. He sits in a throne lording over his opium gang minions, who fear his wrath and tell legends of his brutal raids on villages. It’s never acknowledged that he’s the only white guy here, so you can’t help but wonder at least for a minute if he’s supposed to be playing Asian or what.
Then a magical good guy Tulku (Brady Tsurutani, voice of Barry Dennen [BRANNIGAN]) has him kidnapped, knows that his real name is Lamont Cranston and that he is at war with the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (specifically his own). So the Tulku trains him to magically control his evil and use it as this magical alter-ego called The Shadow that even looks physically different from him – Baldwin wears a fake nose when he’s the Shadow to resemble the character depicted on the covers of pulp magazines. In my opinion it also makes him look more like Billy Baldwin, so maybe that’s why Joel Schumacher wanted Billy for BATMAN & ROBIN.
By the way, my research tells me that none of this stuff in Tibet comes from the source material, it’s a new invention of the screenplay by David Koepp (I COME IN PEACE, JURASSIC PARK). And by the way, congratulations to this movie for only having one writer credited! But I’ve seen it three or more times and I’m still unclear how or why this American became an infamous Tibetan warlord during his wild years. I guess it’s good experience to have, though, because when one of the Tulku’s other students, Genghis Khan descendent Shiwan Khan (John Lone, THE HUNTED, RUSH HOUR 2, WAR), kills his master and comes to New York to create an atomic bomb and conquer the world, he stops by and tips him off first.
They’re sort of mirror images of each other, with similar powers and alternating between a suave suit and tie look and an alter ego (Khan’s wears Mongol armor). Also, both are big on evil laughter. The Shadow uses it to intimidate people while invisible and Khan uses it while causing a cab driver to drive into a wall or make a guard shoot himself in the head or what have you.
Lone isn’t bad at all, but something about the character or his presence doesn’t quite seem strong enough for the villain who anchors a movie like this. His job is mainly to look contemptuous while bossing around his hypnotized pawns, including Margo’s goofy astrophysicist father (Ian McKellen, THE KEEP, in a role similar to John Hurt’s in the Koepp-scripted KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL) and his obnoxious assistant (Tim Curry, CONGO). I love when Khan orders his troops to go kill The Shadow and Curry asks, “Can’t I stay here and help you?”
Baldwin’s stretch as a leading man didn’t last too long, but here is a starring role he was uniquely suited for. As top-ranking brother in a family renowned for handsomeness (“He is such a Baldwin,” —CLUELESS, 1995) obviously he fits the part of the debonair socialite. But he also has an incredible voice, crucial for a character who often taunts his foes while invisible. In fact, the name “The Shadow” was first used for the mysterious narrator of the Detective Story Hour radio show, before they ever gave him a backstory. In subsequent years Baldwin would become a prolific narrator, and even at that point had already done a Swedish documentary called TONG TANA.
The role also takes advantage of Baldwin’s dry humor, another quality that would emerge more in later years. I hadn’t seen MIAMI BLUES at the time so I didn’t know he was so funny. This role is mostly serious, but he has a couple great moments that crack me up, mostly related to acting too casual with this Mongol barbarian sorcerer who has emerged from the tomb of Genghis Khan and invaded his secret base. Cranston asks him, “So, what brings you to the Big Apple?”
Later, after Khan smarmily denounces the arrogance of “you Americans,” Cranston says…
“Hey! That’s the U.S. of A. you’re talking about, pal.”
A pioneer of the music video and the music-video-to-feature-film directing path, director Russell Mulcahy made the stylish RAZORBACK (1984) and then hit it kind of big with HIGHLANDER (1986) and for now let’s make no judgment about HIGHLANDER II (1991). (I have promised Fred Topel that I will review that whole series in the future.) I’m a fan of the weird Denzel thriller RICOCHET (1991) and neither BLUE ICE (1992) or THE REAL MCCOY (1993) shook the world, but the latter must’ve got him an in with Baldwin, so here he is with his shot at the big time, a movie with stars, giant period sets built on five soundstages, tons of great matte paintings and early digital effects for a couple sequences involving a ceremonial dagger that comes to life and tries to bite. (At the time it was an exciting summer-after-JURASSIC-PARK gimmick, now it’s still cool because it looks like something from TRILOGY OF TERROR or PUPPET MASTER.)
I guess you could say Mulcahy’s big shot was a cultural airball, but I think he did a good job. He crams the movie with energetic camera moves (including one following a pneumatic tube across New York City as a message races through it) and gimmicks involving shadows, invisibility and hypnotism. In one cool nightmare sequence, the camera rotates around Baldwin as he tears his own face off and reveals the villain’s beneath it. I also like the shot of what appear to be embroidered carpets that start to swirl and then you realize it’s an overhead shot of Khan emerging from a fancy robe. I really wasn’t sure if it was done in camera or not.
Visual invention and energy-wise some of this stuff reminds me of Sam Raimi, which is interesting because DARKMAN obviously took some inspiration from the Shadow, and around 2006 Raimi got the rights to make a new Shadow movie that never materialized. One could argue that this is because this character is never gonna really catch on as a movie, but Raimi said he just never developed a good enough script.
* * *
I don’t remember there being any Shadowmania occurring during the summer of ’94, but they had all the shit ready if it had gone down. Burger King had a THE SHADOW watch, Keebler had a 1-800 number for an interactive phone game, there were a whole lot of promotional rings, and old timey radios that played the original radio show. There were collector cards from Topps, a lunchbox, a reproduction of the magic knife, a novelization by James Luceno (who writes official STAR WARS novels now), a board game, a handheld electronic game, a puzzle, a pinball machine. They made a Super Nintendo game but I guess they ended up not releasing it because of the failure of the movie.
And yes, there was a line of action figures and vehicles such as the “Thunder Cab,” the “Nightmist Motorcycle” and “Shiwan Khan Serpent Bike.” Some of these are not screen accurate in my opinion.
“Ninja Shadow with blazing eyes,” huh?
That ad mentions the mailaway for a Shadow ring, but there was also one for “Bullet-Proof Shadow” with electronic laugh.
Like DICK TRACY in 1990 and come to think of it JURASSIC PARK in 1993 they tried to follow BATMAN’s lead in using simple iconography for the poster. It’s an angular purple carve-out of just The Shadow’s hat brim, eyes and the visible part of his face, glimmering as if molded in fiber glass at the same factory that made the Batman symbol. This image also appears on screen at the very end.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is somewhat in the Danny Elfman big orchestral gothic mode, and very effective. Then it’s a shock when the credits hit and the movie immediately ditches its period faithfulness. What the hell is this? I thought it was Tina Turner for a second, but it’s Taylor Dayne. And I’m no Meat Loaf expert, but I noticed that the hugely melodramatic build from quiet piano to loud guitars to epic backup choir means this one is written by Jim Steinman. It seems like she’s singing in the point of view of The Shadow struggling with his dark side, which is not entirely true because the song was originally recorded in 1989 by a Steinman group called Pandora’s Box. But this new version changes the lyric “It’s not enough to live a little better every day” to “And who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men today?” and adds a whole part about “It’s a city of shadow / It’s a city of light / It’s a city of secrets / it’s a city of pride.”
Yeah, I don’t know how the hell they decided to make this song happen, but I strongly endorse it.
Also I learned from the credits that there was a Kenny G song played in the Cobalt Club. Luckily I missed it.
I’m glad I decided to go back to this one, not only because I always enjoy it, but because this time it led me to
A MAJOR SEAGALOGICAL DISCOVERY.
Okay, actually it’s a minor one, but it’s the kind of miniscule detail I obsess over. See, there’s this stuntman named Nils Allen Stewart, you see him as a henchman in lots of things, and he does stunts in the UNDER SIEGEs, ONE TOUGH BASTARD, ESCAPE FROM L.A. and all kinds of stuff, but I started to notice him after he starred in the 1999 TV movie THE JESSE VENTURA STORY. When I saw ON DEADLY GROUND on the Cinefamily screen I spotted for the first time that one of the oil workers Forrest beats up in the bar has what I called a Tong Po haircut – completely bald except for a big thick braid hanging off of the back – and I thought that was funny that one of these Alaskan oil workers would have a haircut like that. But I recognized him as Stewart and I know he has some weird mustaches and stuff sometimes, I figured that’s just how he rolls.
So a few years later here I am watching THE SHADOW, released in the same year as ON DEADLY GROUND, so presumably filmed around the same time, and I see…
…Nils Allen Stewart as one of Shiwan Khan’s Mongol henchmen! And all the sudden it hits me that that’s why an oil worker would have that crazy hair cut like that – because he was growing it to play a Mongol in THE SHADOW! Or maybe he had already done THE SHADOW and he decided fuck it, I’m a Mongol now, I’m keeping it.
Anyway, this action figure seems to be based on him, so pick one up if you’re trying to build an ON DEADLY GROUND playset.
THE SHADOW was considered to have opened well, coming in 2nd place to THE LION KING and beating other newcomers BLOWN AWAY, I LOVE TROUBLE, BABY’S DAY OUT and LITTLE BIG LEAGUE. But it ended up only making $8 million more than its $40 million budget, making this yet another non-starter intended franchise.
Baldwin did some more lead roles, including HEAVEN’S PRISONERS and THE EDGE, before becoming more of a character actor and then a comedic one thanks to hosting Saturday Night Live and co-starring on 30 Rock. He hasn’t really had a part in this type of tentpole movie since – unless maybe you count MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION – but it’s easy to assume he’s not really interested in that stuff. I doubt he ever sat on the sets of THE AVIATOR, THE DEPARTED or BLUE JASMINE thinking “shit, I wish that SHADOW thing had caught on.”
Mulcahy, though, seems to have been knocked back down to the minors. His next movie was SILENT TRIGGER starring Dolph Lundgren and after that mostly TV stuff, plus the bland DTV sequel SCORPION KING 2 and the okay Tom Jane movie GIVE ‘EM HELL, MALONE. The one major exception is RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, which actually had a bigger budget than THE SHADOW (not adjusted for inflation) and is one of the best of its series, in my opinion. His current project is about Errol Flynn’s youthful days as an adventurer in Australia – fingers crossed that he’ll find his mojo on that one.
July 5th, 2017 at 9:57 am
I had to be one of the only Shadowmaniacs in America. This movie came out when I was 9 years old, and the fact that there was a superhero who shot people with akimbo handguns was insanely cool to me. I loved the whole thing, the pneumatic tubes were insanely badass, and I was scared shitless of the flying knife that bites you. I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I’m encouraged by the fact that you liked it Vern.
Tarantino loves to talk about how the Alec Baldwin of this era would’ve been the best Batman, and it’s hard to disagree.