The Film: 4/5
The first time I ever watched the 1994 Universal Pictures release The Shadow was on a videotape I rented from Blockbuster as I approached my 16th birthday. In the year or so prior to its theatrical release teaser posters decorated the lobby of every movie house from coast to coast, with a penetrating and intense stare fixated on anyone who gazed upon the poster and the tagline “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” As a huge comic book fan I knew of the Shadow’s existence and origins long before it became a big-budget motion picture; the character, the creation of Walter B. Gibson (writing under the pseudonym “Maxwell Grant”), was one of the most influential in the history of superheroes. It’s impossible now to look at the Shadow’s colorful and lurid exploits in the pages of his own pulp magazines and popular radio series starring Orson Welles and not see the role they would play in the creation of Batman and the rise of mature comics storytelling in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Unfortunately the character’s limited exposure in comics and other popular mediums of the decades that followed caused him to fade from memory and become little more than the answer to a trivia question. Gibson’s creation had headlined a series of successful feature films and serials in the two decades following his debut, even briefly taking a shot at a television series in the 1950’s that didn’t last. DC Comics revived the Shadow in print several times often to great acclaim, but it never came close to attaining the popularity of the company’s better-known stable of muscular supermen and skimpily-dressed female heroes. It was hardly a shock when the much-hyped Universal feature failed to connect with audiences in a summer movie season dominated by Disney’s animated juggernaut The Lion King, the future Oscar honoree Forrest Gump, Keanu Reeves’ action hero debut Speed, and James Cameron’s comedic spy romp True Lies. The $40 million film grossed $32 million in the U.S. and another $16 million in international markets. These weren’t exactly the box office tallies of a 12-megaton bomb, but no one at Universal would be crying out for a sequel. If that had happened in recent years the studio would either put the property up for sale or commission an immediate reboot.
I didn’t let the film’s box office blanket party deter me from checking it out once it hit home video. Watching it for the first time on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray (which comes with the debatable “Collector’s Edition” label) helped me to realize the moment when I believe I fell head over heels in love with the lavish theatrical adaptation of the Shadow. It occurs a few minutes after the opening sequence, but first allow me to lay out a little story for you: in Tibet there is no more feared an underworld character than the brutal crime lord and conqueror Ying Ko. As we learn after seeing this monster in the flesh he is actually the American playboy Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin), a veteran of World War I irrevocably altered by his own dark heart due to the horrors he witnessed during the war. What happened to Cranston to transform him into such a loathsome example of mankind is never explained during the film, but this matters little because almost right after his introduction Cranston is kidnapped and spirited away to the temple of the mystical holy man the Tulku (Brady Tsurutani, voice provided by Barry Dennen). The Tulku knows who Cranston really is and vows to redeem the man by teaching him the power to cloud the minds of the weak in order to fight evil rather than be its willing servant. Cranston initially resists, but once he understands that there is nothing he can to change his predicament he decides to become the Tulku’s pupil.
Now you’re probably thinking, okay so this is where we get a series of predictable training montages. Usually, if you have seen as many comic book-based movies as I have, you would be right. But The Shadow has no time for such wastes of narrative. Instead we are given scrolling white text against black that explains everything that occurs afterwards in the space of a few modest paragraphs. After a few seconds we are in New York City, and Cranston, having assumed the identity of the nocturnal avenger of justice the Shadow, is putting some royal hurt on the city’s criminal element; being the superstitious, cowardly lot they typically are the work comes easily and rarely takes too much of the Shadow’s precious time.
And that’s the moment when The Shadow captured my heart. How much of a hero’s origin do we really need to see in a movie? It all depends on the hero, I suppose. Watching Superman’s upbringing is key to helping us understand the person he becomes later in life, but we don’t need to see Cranston learning to master the ability to cloud men’s minds to know that he’ll end up fighting the forces of evil once his education is finished. We accept the idea from the start and the film dispenses with needless scenes of Cranston learning from the Tulku. It jumps from their first meeting to New York City several years later, when the Shadow has been active for a while and his name alones inspires dread. Because fuck a back story.
It’s a refreshing concept from a different time before superhero movies became popular again and origin stories often provided the source material for the first two acts of a potential new franchise’s opening installment, if not the entire bloody feature. Sometimes they serve a larger purpose as I mentioned before. Then again there are times when we would much rather bypass the exposition and montages and get to the real meat of the story. We know all we need to know, now bring on the action.
The Shadow doesn’t mess around in kicking the plot into gear: having been established as the scourge of the Big Apple’s criminal element for years, Cranston slips out of his crime-fighting identity and into a late dinner date with the alluring Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), who is very beautiful but also a noted eccentric rumored to have strange abilities. That initially proves to be a turn-on for our handsome playboy man about town Lamont until he gets a good idea about how powerful Margo’s knack for mind-reading really is. This isn’t another case of Superman and Clark Kent both being in love with the same woman; Cranston has bigger problems to deal with in the form of New York’s latest arrival, Shiwan Khan (John Lone). Also armed with the same mind-clouding powers the Shadow possesses, Khan came to the States by way of a wooden crate that was waylaid to a history museum and has designs on fulfilling the world-conquering dreams of his infamous ancestor Genghis. To do this the power-hungry villain-in-the-making mentally enslaves Margo’s scientist Reinhardt (Ian McKellen) and compels him to use his (supposedly) harmless research into atomic energy to build him a bomb - an atomic bomb you might say - that could reduce the City That Never Sleeps to a crater filled to the brim with irradiated ash in mere seconds. Because Cranston has that special keen insight into the kinds of evil that tend to loiter uninvited in the hearts of real assholes like Khan only the Shadow, with a little help from Margo and his network of agents throughout the city, can foil the madman and save the city from becoming an image that makes most neo-con warmongers masturbate furiously.
The blockbuster success of the first Tim Burton-directed Batman opened the floodgates for comic book properties to be taken seriously as fodder for big screen adaptations. Studio execs saw that $251 million domestic gross and had their own “come to Jesus” moment, snapping up the film rights to every available comic title published by both the majors like Marvel and DC and the scrappy independent companies like Dark Horse and Malibu. Some studios without access to their own established franchise brands sought to create their own with results both good (Darkman) and not-so-much (Meteor Man). The year following the first Bat-hit Disney took a shot at turning Chester Gould’s classic comic strip police detective Dick Tracy into a gargantuan celluloid endeavor with Warren Beatty in place as both star and director, but the film that resulted from years of development and multiple battles between filmmaker and Mouse House power players only managed to eke out a modest profit through critical raves, a star-powered cast, and aggressive promotion. The character was well-known to middle-aged comic fans but had little name brand value to younger generations reared on the colorful and epic adventures of more recognizable heroes.
When Sam Raimi came to Universal Pictures to make grand-scale motion pictures he had desired to make a film based on the Shadow. The studio was understandably reluctant to hand over a valuable potential franchise to a newbie director whose oeuvre at the time was coming up with visually inventive methods of showing demonic zombies getting chainsawed into quivering human cold cuts. Sooooooo, they hired Russell Mulcahy, the Australian music video wunderkind who went from directing the first video to ever be shown on MTV (“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles) to the classic original Highlander. He also directed Highlander II: The Quickening of his own free will, so let that sink in for a moment. Prior to taking the helm on The Shadow Mulcahy had directed Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer in the glossy heist drama The Real McCoy for Universal; he must have had the Shadow gig lined up and legalized by the time that film came out and grossed a pathetic $6.5 million at the box office against a $24 million budget. Mulcahy may never have sported the magic touch when it came to prospective hit movies, but at least he’s smart enough to line up his next job well in advance.
I’ve always found Mulcahy to be a good director. Most of the time the films he makes are far too undeserving of his considerable skills behind the camera. He can spit-polish a turd like no one’s business (case in point: the aforementioned Highlander II). His decent features are few and the distance between each one would require a spacecraft capable of faster-than-light travel to successfully jump from one to another before the pilot died of incredibly old age. The Shadow ranks up there with his killer wild board Jaws riff Razorback and the original Highlander as the best of vintage Mulcahy, and I would even include his aggressively violent 1991 thriller Ricochet in their ranks as well. The last good movie I saw with his name attached to the credits was Give ‘Em Hell, Malone starring Thomas Jane and Ving Rhames, and when I say “good” I don’t exactly mean “memorable”.
Stylistically, The Shadow exists in that same soundstage-based vision of reality that gave Dick Tracy its striking, painterly visuals. In the grand ol’ glory days before CGI completely dominated the SFX game Mulchay marshaled in a gluttonous feast of practical wizardry to bring the world of Lamont Cranston to dazzling life, including matte paintings, models and miniatures, prosthetic make-up, and other enticing optical illusions created with genuine passion and imagination. Digital effects were used sparsely to enhance the in-camera work and accomplish what practicality couldn’t, and those moderate yet primitive (for 1994 anyway) computer-generated images never called attention to themselves. The effects prove useful tools in telling a refreshingly old-fashioned piece of pulp storytelling; scripter David Koepp had built for himself an invincible reputation at Universal by writing Death Becomes Her for Robert Zemeckis, Carlito’s Way for Brian DePalma, and Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking international box office champ Jurassic Park - an all-time great in the pantheon of summer movie season spectacle. When Koepp was working at full strength he could deliver a straightforward E-ticket tale that didn’t intentionally insult the intelligence of its intended audience. He also became in later years a pretty decent director with worthy credits like Stir of Echoes and Ghost Town. Koepp’s take on the Shadow is clearly influenced by the original pulps but is more interested in getting away from the darker corners of the character’s universe and writing a standard adventure story that essentially boils down to “hero vs. villain”. It has the magazine stories and radio shows in its heart, but the breakneck rollercoaster rides of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics on the brain.
Fans of the Shadow will delight in seeing some of the beloved supporting players from the character’s rich mythology like dutiful cab driver Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle), radio operator Burbank (Andre Gregory), and scientist Dr. Roy Tam (Sab Shimono) all serving vital roles in the narrative. It would have been awesome to spend more time getting to know these delightful and fascinating individuals a little bit, but the astute casting helps to fill in some of what the story leaves out. Tim Curry froths and bugs out his eyes with verve as a lecherous assistant to Dr. Lane who predictably joins the side of evil without much convincing. John Lone’s performance as the evil Shiwan Khan transcends Yellow Peril stereotypes through the actor’s silken charisma and Koepp’s reimagining of the character as a villain cut from the same cloth as the Red Skull and Lex Luthor. Lone seems right at home using his classical delivery to strike the proper balance of malicious wit and theatrical bombast in the writer’s patently absurd dialogue. I loved seeing Margo Lane portrayed not as a standard-issue damsel in distress but as a smart and capable woman who never requires rescuing and in fact even comes to the Shadow’s aid at crucial moments. Miller is both sexy and hilarious in a performance that is equal parts Rosalind Russell and Margot Kidder. Only Baldwin is almost defeated by the material and his own acting choices; he looks and sounds the heroic sort but all too often lets his good looks and overconfident, action star-ready smugness do the lion’s share of heavy-lifting. He comes across as so arrogant that you almost want to see Khan beat the Shadow just so he can wipe that self-satisfied grin off of his face.
The lush sets and back lot cityscapes are photographed with graceful beauty and menacing Dutch angles by frequent DePalma cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. But it’s the original orchestral score by the late Jerry Goldsmith that really commands your attention. The brass-loaded soundtrack conveys the film’s themes of the darkness that dwells within the souls of us all while still delivering plenty of dynamic action cues with proper bravado and mystery. Goldsmith’s score is one of the finest ever composed for a comic book film, and luckily the film that it accompanies is good enough to be deemed worthy of that music.
The Shadow looks and sounds sharp in its Blu-ray debut. The results aren’t exactly what they could have been, but Shout! Factory’s 1080p high-definition transfer of the film is still quite laudable for being a vast improvement over Universal’s previous VHS, laserdisc, and DVD releases. Presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the picture features a moderate amount of grain but is otherwise very clean and features a great step up in the presentation of the film’s muted color palette. The fine details are also enhanced and honed to terrific quality. The Shadow was originally released theatrically in both DTS-Stereo and Dolby Spectral Recording audio soundtracks, and this Blu provides us with dual audio channels to replicate the big screen viewing experience for those possessing of the finest home theater set-ups. Our options are English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks and for some reason I couldn’t detect any audible differences between the two. Distortion is non-existent and the various elements of the sound mix work beautifully together without one taking precedent over another. The 2.0 track does feature a slightly raised volume, but neither track ever makes manual adjustment a necessity. English subtitles are also included.
The Shadow was positively crying out for a loaded special edition Blu-ray. Shout! Factory could have delivered a bang-up disc worth remembering, but the only new special feature they gave us here is “Looking Back at The Shadow”, a 24-minute retrospective documentary that contains recent interviews with director Mulcahy, actors Baldwin and Miller, screenwriter Koepp, cinematographer Burum, and production designer Nemic. The slight running time didn’t bother me at first because enough information relating to the film’s making to please fans could have been conveyed. It was impossible for “Looking Back” to accomplish that much. Mostly we get a great deal of the interviewees fawning over each other, and Koepp in particular. This unfettered adulation chews up about half of the featurette, and by the time the participants start getting into meatier production details it’s too little, too late. Shout really dropped the ball on this one. We learn little to nothing about the script development, Mulcahy’s hiring, the casting process, filming, post-production (with zero mention of Jerry Goldsmith, which is a crime), the mixed critical reaction, and the film’s box office failure. Big Shadow fan I am, I wanted something much more substantial and informative. What a letdown.
Closing out the bonus features are a terrific standard-definition theatrical trailer (2 minutes) and a still gallery where you’ll find various production photos, behind-the-scenes pics, and poster art. Damn shame. Where is the commentary track? Deleted scenes? Interviews with the effects crew? On set B-roll footage? Shout! Factory, are you trying to tell me that none of this stuff exists? BULLSHIT!
Despite an almost unforgivable lack of informative supplements The Shadow’s Blu-ray premiere is worth the purchase price for the movie itself and its upgraded picture and audio alone. Long neglected by voracious fans of modern superhero cinema, this is a funny and spirited entertainment with the seedy, imaginative soul of classic pulp fiction and the exhilaration of cutting edge tentpole filmmaking that works. Russell Mulcahy’s film does it what does better than most and it does with flair and a respect for its character and audience, and that’s more than enough for it to be included in the pantheon of unjustly underrated comic book adventures.