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The Shadow (30th anniversary revisit)

July 1st, 1994

THE SHADOW is another weird 1994 would-be blockbuster that I previously wrote about in my 2017 series Summer Flings, and I will point you to that review for a more thorough accounting of its plot, merchandising and promotion. But it’s a movie I’m pretty fond of and it’s at least trying to be one of the more traditional popcorn movies of the summer so I wanted to revisit it and discuss it in the context of this retrospective.

You know, when I look at it now the math kinda makes sense. Old pulp super hero + the period when studios were trying to recreate the magic of BATMAN 1989 + Russell Mulcahy, the pioneering music video director who gave us HIGHLANDER and HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING = this movie. It has all kinds of the old timey concepts and tone that I enjoy, it’s filmed with enthusiastic style and energy, it also has a bit of a craziness that’s appealing to me but maybe a turn off for the kind of wide audience they were obviously hoping for. It’s not as wild or messy as THE QUICKENING but it has enough of that that it’s not surprising it didn’t catch on.

(It did open above the other new releases – BLOWN AWAY, I LOVE TROUBLE, BABY’S DAY OUT and LITTLE BIG LEAGUE, but below THE LION KING‘s third week. Then it dropped to #5 the next week.)

Every time I watch the opening I can imagine it peeling off unadventurous viewers at the same time it’s making me think “Holy shit, this is amazing!” They came to see Alec Baldwin (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) playing a super hero in a black fedora and long coat, but the fucking thing starts at a palace in Tibet, where he’s an evil opium lord with long hair and fingernails sitting on a throne surrounded by ladies and servants and hangers-on, calling himself “Yin-Ko.” To this day I’m unclear how New York City rich boy Lamont Cranston ended up living this Jabba the Hutt lifestyle for seven years after the war. The villain, Genghis Khan descendant Shiwan Khan (John Lone, YEAR OF THE DRAGON) later says he idolized him for his savagery, marveling about some legendarily brutal raid on a village he once did. Much later Cranston’s love interest Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller, DEAD BANG) wakes him from a flashback dream where he’s in armor on horseback chopping people up with a sword, and she says “Whatever you were, whatever you did – it’s in the past.” Man, talk about unconditional love and acceptance!

I shouldn’t be making assumptions. For all I know, mainstream audiences enjoyed all this weirdness but understandably lost interest when the movie loses some of its steam in the long battle between the rival mind power students of the same tulku (Brady Tsurutani, COME SEE THE PARADISE). Or maybe everyone who saw it kind of liked it but it just didn’t do well because not enough people bought tickets in the first place. I can only speculate. What I do know is that I really love a movie that trusts its audience with this kind of non sequitur. Here’s A, now here’s B, it’s more interesting for you to puzzle over what the fuck kind of dotted line could possibly connect them than for us to draw it for you.

After the prologue is what also would’ve been a cool opening where Lamont materializes as the guy promised on the poster. A group of gangsters are about to dump a scientist (Sab Shimono, BLIND DATE, SUTURE, last seen as the villain in 3 NINJAS KICK BACK) off a bridge, but they’re stopped by The Shadow. With his control over men’s minds he becomes invisible to them, his perfect narrator voice echoing from different directions, surrounding them, still seeming disembodied even when they can see who it’s coming from: a hat, a cloak, a red scarf covering the bottom half of a face, which has Baldwin’s eyes but is basically sculpted in latex to look like The Shadow as he appeared in the painted magazine covers. (The makeup is by the great Greg Cannom, EXORCIST III, HIGHLANDER II, KICKBOXER 2, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.)

Then we meet Lamont in his daily life, passing himself off as a handsome bachelor going to fancy restaurants and shit, and right away we see him having to control people’s minds in public. Suddenly a shadow comes across his face, and he tells people what he needs them think, like a Jedi mind trick. Wherever he is – indoors, outdoors – a dramatic shadow can cover his eyes, or everything but his eyes. It’s so cool. The bizarre Tibet opening, followed by the ghostly assault on the foggy bridge, followed by him brainwashing the police chief out in the open makes it feel like a comic book blockbuster set in the dream world.

To be technical, THE SHADOW is not a comic book movie, because the character comes originally from a radio show, then pulp magazines. But he’s definitely a super hero, was one of the primary influences on Batman, and therefore comic books, and this certainly belongs in the same genre as BATMAN. So it’s the second comic book movie of summer ’94, coming about a month and a half after THE CROW, which according to Box Office Mojo had only left theaters a week before this came out.

At the time I thought of those two as kind of opposites – THE CROW was the dark, broody comic book movie and THE SHADOW was jokey and joyfully hokey. Those differences remain, but as the genre has evolved and dropped some of its former trappings they seem to have more in common than they used to. In particular, they both follow the rule that the look and atmosphere of the city the character resides in is as important as the costume, the origin, etc. This ‘40s New York City, created with both sets and beautiful matte paintings, is almost as stylized and exaggerated as the ‘90s Detroit of THE CROW. Furthermore, these are both urban crime stories where the protagonist has scary supernatural powers and taps into his dark side to fight a deranged magic user. So yes, I have decided that THE SHADOW, THE CROW, and of course BABY’S DAY OUT take place in the same universe, just different cities and times.

Another way my perception of THE SHADOW has changed in 30 years is similar to THE FLINTSTONES – at the time it seemed very modern because of some computer generated effects, but now it seems classical and old fashioned with its many noticeable matte paintings and giant sets. And I’m guessing most of those cool shadow shots were traditionally animated. Some other fun gimmicks in this one:

-Bad guys see him only as a shadow moving across a wall, they shoot arrows into it, he emerges out of the shadow in three dimensions with the arrows merely pinning his cape to the wall.


-He and Khan try to shoot each other, but the bullets collide in the air, smashing like cars crashing head on.

-Margo dreams of Lamont digging his fingers into his face, tearing it off and revealing Khan’s underneath.

-Khan is offended by a sailor’s xenophobic comment, and causes him to jump off the Empire State Building. From a distance we see the tiny body plummeting and bouncing as the camera settles on Lamont and Margo walking down the street, having no idea this just happened behind them.

-A showdown in a hall of mirrors that all explode at once – kind of an echo of the shattering glass at the end of HIGHLANDER, though it doesn’t look as beautiful.

The big CG gimmick is the tulku’s dagger that has a face on it and comes to life a couple times. At the time it was a selling point, which is funny because looking at it now it could’ve been done almost the same, and a little better, with stop motion. And I would’ve been just as excited about that.

I still really appreciate the tone of the movie, treating all of this stuff seriously but with funny dialogue. Lamont has many dry comments underplaying the situations he’s in, like when he’s sitting down to dinner with Khan and says, like it’s just occurring to him, “By the way – you sent Margo Lane to kill me!” Or when the magic dagger from his past tries to bite him and he says, “Oh— that knife.” Or during the climax when Margo’s father asks her what’s going on and she says, “Well, there’s this guy— I’ll tell you later.”

There’s no pretension that this is a deep or meaningful movie, but I realize now there are things you can read into its concept that “the clouded mind sees nothing.” It kind of works as a similar metaphor to the one in THE MATRIX. It’s the idea that we can go through the motions of our daily lives, not paying enough attention to observe the powerful people telling us how to think, what to do. Khan makes plans for world domination from a luxury hotel in the middle of downtown, so unnoticed that the building is literally invisible to the people walking past it. Even the funny joke of the museum security guard seeing the armored Khan emerge from Genghis Khan’s magically opening crypt and telling him “W-we’re closed” fits this reading. When Khan asks him to “Join me” the guard’s response is “This is private property.” He sees something incredible but he still can’t conceive of life outside of the existing rule book.

Of course, the MATRIX series ultimately disavows the notion of a chosen one, emphasizing the importance of collective action, while THE SHADOW is in that ‘30s tradition of one particularly great rich guy going out of his way to help people – an increasingly fantastical notion these days, though some love to pretend it’s real. A cool thing about The Shadow’s version of the fantasy is his network of spies and agents made up of people he once helped. They realize they benefit from The Shadow’s system and should help spread the wealth to others.

So I continue to enjoy THE SHADOW. It’s not perfect, and not my favorite of the old timey super hero flops. I always find myself much more invested in all the set up than in the third act battle that pays it off. But by that point it has me hypnotized with its whole world and style and humor. Maybe nobody thought so at the time, but to me its a step toward redeeming this so-far pretty iffy summer movie season.

* * *

post-scripts:

1. It’s cool that the first people we see in the movie are Al Leong, Gerald Okamura and James Hong.

2. This is a good movie for games where you connect different movies through their casts, because in addition to the actors already mentioned you have Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, Andre Gregory, and Max Wright from ALF.

3. This time I did notice the Kenny G song playing in The Cobalt Club. What the hell? I still adore the Taylor Dane/Jim Steinman end credits song “Original Sin,” though. This was the summer before I started working at a theater, but that’s one I would’ve enjoyed cleaning.

4. You know this movie means business because it has the production designer of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (Joseph C. Nemec III), the d.p. of THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLE FISH and several DePalma movies (Stephen H. Burum), and the editor of HELL UP IN HARLEM (Peter Honess).

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46 Responses to “The Shadow (30th anniversary revisit)”

  1. This was always my least favorite of this era’s old-timey pulp superhero-y movies, but that didn’t stop me from reading the novelization and playing with the action figures. I think my main issue was my expectation going in– something more grounded like Batman by way of Dick Tracy– and what it turned out to be, with this weird psycho-mystic stuff. But I’m more of a Mulcahy fan now and I should revisit.

    Per your previous review, I also find it funny that the full Shadow makeup just makes Alec Baldwin look like Billy Baldwin.

  2. This is indeed one of those movies that are flawed as hell (As I mentioned in the comments of the previous review, It always feels to me like one of those movies that were cut to shreds in post production and there should be an at least 30 minutes longer directors cut somewhere), but always a good time, because there is so much cool shit in it.

    Further cast additions:

    – Patrick Fischler plays the made-to-be suicidal sailor
    – Ethan Phillips (Star Trek’s Neelix) is the museum security guard
    – Robert Trebor of HERCULES & XENA fame is also popping up somewhere

  3. I just re-watched this for the first time since it’s initial video release. Although I don’t think it overcomes its problems (somewhat goofy villain with a distractingly fake beard, halting and incomplete development of the Shadow as a hero and screen presence unto himself, general choppiness), there are so many really promising or nice individual elements, which Vern covers well here and in his other review. This is definitely one that I want to like more than I like. Major props to the film for general weirdness.

  4. This movie is not very good, but some of the style is nice and I wish it worked. Post-Batman was a fun time for movies if you were into film noir and gangster type of stuff…like Miller’s Crossing was a fav even though I couldn’t understand the story exactly, but having these superhero stuff with even cooler cities was great. Dick Tracy was a fav too.

  5. The problem is not much except for the look goes beyond Basic Movie 101. It’s all so standard and dull…and I remember thinking it was ultra lame that this cool looking hero is fighting…medieval armored dudes with swords? Not exactly awesome.

  6. Penelope Ann Miller is a stunner in that white dress.

  7. Guess I’ve never been any good at telling what wound be a hit. Me and my pal saw this at the cinema on its first week and both absolutely loved it. As Vern lays out here, that wild mess of tones is what makes it. Sinister, silly and just downright odd. Would’ve loved a sequel.

    Mulcahy’s an odd one. A real visual flare and there’s always plenty of weirdness in his films. Even his Resident Evil is by far the best if the series. Just seems like he might’ve had it in him to make something even better than Highlander if things had gone right.

    Think it came up on the orbit thread but The Shadow is that it had a tremendous pinball machine. Up there with Addams Family and Demolition Man as the absolute best of the 90s licensed tables.

  8. Really glad to read appreciation of this movie.

    Although The Rocketeer is maybe the best of the post Batman’89 adventure/comic book movies this and The Phantom are the most fun in my opinion partly due to Baldwin and Zane both going all in for it. And any super/pulp hero movie that starts with the protagonist as a dirty finger nailed, werewolf chested, warlord with no explanation as to how this guy got from point A to point Tibetan Dracula I’m all in on. I’ve had to defend this movie many times.

    Two of the biggest flaws of The Shadow is not enough Tim Curry and Ian McKellan. Both feel very edited down. 4 years after IT I could see Curry overshadowing Lone as Khan.

    Also I remember watching Batman Begins for the first time and getting a bit of The Shadow vibes with Bruce Wayne’s backstory.

  9. Also The Shadow telling the henchman guy “Next time you can be on top” after falling to his death in a 1940’s super hero movie for kids is tonally wild.

  10. Funny to note that this is probably the last time, between political correctness and fear of offending China, that a ‘Fu Manchu’ type villain was played straight (other than Mortal Kombat, where it’s leavened by having the hero be Asian as well). Ra’s al Ghul and the Mandarin were both turned into cover identities for white villains, then Mandarin was done again as a sorta antihero who was only evil because of a demon that made him miss his wife. And yet, despite Shiwan being unapologetically a Fu Manchu, I’ve never seen any controversy over it, even in these two retrospectives focusing on how times have changed between then and now.

    Does that prove anything? Maybe not, given the low box office. People have to watch a movie before they can be offended by it. Wait, do they?

    Still, I find it interesting that here and in The Phantom, you have an eclectic selection of villains: pirate king, crooked industrialist, psychic warlord, the Mummy from The Mummy. And since then, it sorta feels like the pulpy throwback genre has been flattened into all Nazi villains all the time (the last Indiana Jones movie has a boatload of Nazis despite being set in 1969, while Jungle Cruise is at least trying to evoke Hitler with its German WW1 bad guys). To the point where in Into The Spider-Verse, the Nicolas Cage character whose gag is that he’s a noir detective jokes about how often he punches Nazis. Yeah, remember all those Bogart movies where he beat up Nazis?

  11. Ah yes, I do miss the wild creativity of dipping into the bin of musty racial stereotypes for villains

  12. I had heard that about you Zed but I’m surprised you’re going around bragging about it.

  13. Ha. To be clear, my comment was in response to Kaplan’s lament, not your review, or the movie itself.

  14. Well, I don’t know what Kaplan intended, but it didn’t come across as a lament to me.

  15. I think one of the reasons why the inherent offensiveness of the Fu Manchu villain doesn’t register clearly here is that John Lone is just so much fun in the role. He’s out of his Mongolian outfit and in a suit pretty quickly. And he’s clearly having a lot of fun with the character. I wish he had more time with Alec Baldwin, because their conversation in the restaurant is a highlight of the film. If this wasn’t a bomb, I always thought a good idea for a sequel would be if The Shadow had to work with Khan. I know they did this in the Thor sequel, but I guarantee my hypothetical sequel would be better.

    I rewatched this a couple of years ago, and I don’t know what some people on here are complaining about. It was just as good as I remembered it. My biggest complaint is that it’s stuffed with tons of great actors, but they aren’t all given enough to do. I wouldn’t mind if this movie was ten minutes longer. But there’s also something to be said about leaving audiences wanting more.

  16. When you’re young, I think you assume that every movie you see is a hit.
    When I saw “The Shadow” in an empty theater, and I could hear “The Lion King” coming through the walls the entire time, I think I finally figured it out.

  17. Well, I can’t know for sure what he meant either, Vern, but the comment sure read to me like a lightly-coded version of the old “gee remember when [stand-up comedy, movies, comic books, whatever] wasn’t yet ruined by everyone being so darn sensitive” lament, which I just find lazy.

  18. You forgot the best line. When the guy falls off the Empire State Building Lamont says “it’s all falling into place for me.”

    There were production problems. I believe a fire destroyed sets for the climax which was supposed to be much more elaborate.

  19. Want to emphatically agree with RBatty on how good John Lone is in this. It honestly didn’t even occur to me what a regressive trope the character is because he’s so vivid and specific in his portrayal. Insane that Lone worked with Michael Cimino, Philip Noyce, Bernardo Bertolucci, Alan Rudolph, and David Cronenberg… and then just somehow dropped off the face of the Earth after 2007. John Lone, if you’re reading this, come back! We need you!

  20. Well, I think we have about as many Fu Manchu movies as we need and there’s no need to try and revive or fix the character, but I also feel like a lot of these paths studios take to adapt Asian supervillains nonproblematically (especially by turning them into white guys) are overthinking it, if not making it worse, and ‘just’ being an evil megalomaniac like Shiwan Khan (who is nonstereotypical, stylish, intelligent, witty, attractive et al) would probably suffice in most cases.

  21. That’s what they did in SHANG-CHI. The comic book started as a licensed spin-off of the Fu Manchu character, who was renamed and turned into Tony Leung in the movie.

  22. All these years and who knows how many movies later, and “Oh. THAT knife.” is still a Top 10 line delivery for me.

    I saw this at a theater in either Kansas City or Omaha (Wiki research says it must’ve been Omaha, actually) and I remember coming out into the lobby afterwards and seeing an OK Soda-branded vending machine. It looks like that really could’ve only happened in the Summer of ’94!

  23. I think with Shang-Chi, they went a bit too far in making the Tony Leung character into a nice guy who was just being bamboozled by a demon, which ironically made him a worse (less imposing) villain to me. He doesn’t have that Bond villain flair because at the end of the day he’s a catspaw to the real bad guy: a roaring CGI effect.

    What I like about Shiwan Khan is that he’s fully a Hans Gruber. No sympathetic backstory, no “he just went a little too far” MCU centrism, he’s an evil fucker who delights in being evil. Sometimes that’s all you need.

  24. grimgrinningchris

    July 14th, 2024 at 7:43 am

    I’m currently wearing a t-shirt, one of my faves, of a collage of The Shadow, the Phantom, Dick Tracy and the Rocketeer.

    Also, I’m not a huge James Patterson fan, but I did really enjoy his semi recent Shadow novel that partly takes place in the 30s and partly takes place in the future.

  25. Grimgrinningchris-thanks for mentioning this.
    I’ve never read Patterson and was unaware of it but will have to check it out. Looks like it has a sequel now too. And your shirt sounds awesome man.

  26. grimgrinningchris

    July 14th, 2024 at 2:21 pm

    Kyle. Unfortunately typically not a fan or airport bookstore pageturner stuff. But as I guess that’s the new pulp, it seemed appropriate for someone like Patterson to revisit the old pulp. I did really enjoy it and now need to look up it’ssequel. I need a new library card.
    I’ve loved the character since I was a kid. My mom and I used to take a road trip together, just us, every summer. Since we often argued about music, we’d always go to the library for books on tape to listen to on the road. But tended to prefer old radio shows which launched my love of old time radio. So I’ll always think of her when I think of the Shadow.
    And yes. This shirt rules. Ha.

  27. Grimgrinningchris-Not a fan of airport/beach reading either but it can definitely have its place.

    And that is a really cool memory you share with your mom.
    I can relate in that when I was a kid my mom, who was a child of the 50’s, introduced me to the Universal Monsters, Abbott and Costello, and radio shows like The Shadow. I’m from the south where Cracker Barrel’s are a plenty. In the early 90’s they sold cassettes of the old Shadow show recordings (Orson Wells) and my mom would buy them for us to listen to in the car. That is part of why this movie was an important event much like Batman 89 for me because I came in with pre 94’ Shadow excitement already being a fan. And thankfully the movie delivered and lived up to my 10 yr old expectations sticking to the look and feel of the radio plays. Not to mention I remember the toys were pretty great. I don’t think I knew anyone else my age who was aware of The Shadow. I would interested to know if your experience was similar.

  28. To anyone who hasn’t listened to Vern guesting on the Do We Still Like This? podcast he does a great job discussing the episode topic of The Phantom with the host.
    I was already a big fan of the movie but his discussion , besides his written review, made me appreciate it even more.

    But most readers here have probably listened to it and I’m late to the game lol.

  29. grimgrinningchris

    July 14th, 2024 at 4:05 pm

    Kyle. Not far off. I’m from the south too. And I remember radio show and compilation cassette tapes at Cracker Barrels and Stuckeys. We tended to stock up at the library but if we were on the road and ran out or didn’t like what we’d gotten, we’d sometimes buy one from one or the other. That’s how I was introduced, and became obsessed, with the radio version of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life quiz show. But I think all of our Shadows and Suspense and Amos & Andy (I know, I know) were library finds.

  30. Thank you for saying that, Kyle. I remember having fun doing that episode. Here’s a link, if anyone does want to listen:

    https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/so-do-we-still-like-this/episodes/Episode-118—The-Phantom-emda36

  31. Grimgrinningchris-ahh yeah now that you mention it I remember Stuckeys selling radio show cassettes as well. Haven’t been in one of those in a long time. I remember that Marx quiz show but I think I ever had any them. Also sounds like you had a better library selection than my hometown at the time.

    I also forgot about the Shadow SNES game they cancelled due to poor box office. I remember being being bummed because it looked pretty fun for as a Final Fight type scrolling beat em up game.

    Getting the Shadow book on order. Thanks again for putting out the recommendation!!

  32. Vern-you are welcome! Some highlights that stood out were you bringing up some great points on Zeta Jones pirate queen’s motivations and Williams’s role as the villain.

    It was really cool that (if I’m remembering correctly) the host hadn’t seen it before, watched it for the episode, and thought it was great too.

    Now I’m just waiting for The Outlaw Vern podcast. :)

  33. grimgrinningchris

    July 15th, 2024 at 10:10 am

    Kyle. Let me know what you think. The only Patterson I’ve read besides was one Alex Cross book, which i just thought was okay. But he wound up be a good nu-pulp guy to adapt an old pulp.

    Also, I think The Shadow would make a good Sin City style movie. Just don’t let Frank Miller direct it.

  34. Grimgrinningchris-Will do. Agreed on a Sin City style reboot. And a big yes on Miller not directing because yeah The Spirit is a pretty rough watch.

    That brings up the question of which actor now would make a good Shadow/Cranston

  35. grimgrinningchris

    July 16th, 2024 at 3:40 pm

    Kyle.
    He’d never do it. But just my choice would probably be Gosling.

  36. Grim-Man, Adam Driver kept coming to mind for some reason but yeah Gosling is even better pick.

  37. Oh, I like the Adam Driver suggestion! Not many current movie stars have an appropriate nose and a deep voice.

  38. grimgrinningchris

    July 17th, 2024 at 4:34 am

    Ooooooh. I really like the Driver idea too though. Dunno why that didn’t come to mind.

  39. grimgrinningchris

    July 17th, 2024 at 6:31 am

    The only other parts from this movie, as they are main canon through most of the history of the character through all mediums are Margo Lane, Commissioner Barth and Moe, the cabdriver, that would need to be “recast ” Everything else is open to a new story and characters.

    I’ll throw out Lily James, Donofrio and Giamatti for those three respectively.

    Even with that cast, if it were done Sin City style, which would be genre appropriate, I bet it could be made for less than $50mil, depending on the director.

  40. Yeah Driver does have the voice and nose ready to go.

    I can’t argue with any of those picks for the other characters. Although I just watched Longlegs over the weekend and would like to see Maika Monroe in more movies as she continues to knock it out of the park. She might make an interesting Lane.

  41. I still would love to see Raimi get a chance to direct his version. Hopefully he would hold back his style too much. More Darkman Raimi than Dr. Strange Raimi.

  42. grimgrinningchris

    July 17th, 2024 at 3:06 pm

    That would be great, I can’t imagine he needs the money so would likely work cheaply to do an old passion project on a limited budget. And his name would likely attract everyone mentioned. Especially Giamatti.

  43. Barry Weinberger

    July 22nd, 2024 at 3:49 pm

    I nominate Adrien Brody for The Shadow, with Zemeckis directing.

  44. grimgrinningchris

    July 23rd, 2024 at 3:42 am

    Okay. I’m bowing to that idea.

  45. Yeah that’s a great combo Barry!

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