The Happy Hero

The Phantom delivers a comic-book masked guy from the days before angst

Despite his impressive early work in such '70s films as Hair and Prince of the City, Williams never quite took off as a conventional movie lead. In the past year or so, however, he has jump-started his stalled career with risk taking and attention grabbing work as a character actor. He towered over the silly affectations of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and made the absolute most of his small but key role in Mulholland Falls. In The Phantom, he charges through his scenes with such full tilt exuberance that he seems to quicken the pulse, and the pace, of every other actor on-screen. He issues orders with a nastily impatient laugh that eerily recalls Ross Perot. And he exhorts underlings with the engaging rant of a snake-oil peddler. Even as he smiles, he reveals Drax as a single-minded sociopath with the undisciplined appetite of a spoiled child. For this guy, immediate gratification would be too slow. The only time he slows down is when, after tossing a spear at someone who dares to disagree with him, he feels a momentary pang of remorse. But that's only because, after perforating the victim, the spear left a nasty nick in the wood paneling of Drax's boardroom.

Swanson is charmingly feisty as Diana Palmer, the wealthy adventuress who punches out almost as many villains as the Phantom himself. Jones is appropriately naughty as Sala, but not so much so that there's ever any doubt about her ultimate redemption. Patrick McGoohan periodically pops up as the ghost of the Phantom's father, a garrulous fellow who offers friendly advice and stern-faced criticism. Just think of him as the Ghost Who Nags.

The plot? Well, it has something to do with a free-lance bad guy (James Remar) with an old score to settle with the Phantom, and something else to do with gold, silver and jade skulls that, when united, unleash a powerful supernatural force. There are hairbreadth escapes in Bengalla, major altercations in New York and a climactic dust-up on a remote island with the surviving Sengh Brotherhood pirates. The latter are led by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who will delight those children in the audience who recognize him as the chief heavy in last year's Mortal Kombat movie.

Unlike Mortal Kombat -- and, for that matter, unlike the Batman movies -- The Phantom doesn't feature anything that's violent enough, or scary enough, to merit a rating more restrictive than PG. Just how squeaky-clean is this movie? Consider this: no smoking is allowed in the Skull Cave, headquarters of the Phantom. And while you're at it, also consider this: Billy Zane currently appears, in full Phantom regalia, in posters and magazine ads for the American Dairy Institute. Yes, it's true -- the Phantom drinks milk, and he's not ashamed to let the world know it. No one who sees him in his first big-budget movie adventure will be the least bit surprised.

The Phantom. Directed by Simon Wincer. With Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson and Treat Williams.

Rated PG.
100 minutes.

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