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The Happy Hero

After wading through the angst of three doom-and-gloom Batman movies, wouldn't you like to see a masked superhero who enjoys his work? Who actually thinks battling bad guys is a grand and glorious adventure? Then take a peek at The Phantom, a rousingly old-fashioned and refreshingly uncomplicated comic-book movie.

Mind you, we're talking about the Ghost Who Walks, not the Guy Who Drops Chandeliers. Cartoonist/writer Lee Falk created the Phantom back in 1936 -- two years before the first appearance of Superman, three years before the debut of Batguy. And while the Phantom has long been surpassed in popularity by more flamboyant good guys, he continues to pound evildoers every day in more than 500 newspapers throughout the world. (You can still find him tucked into a corner of the Houston Chronicle's comics pages, under Snuffy Smith and next to Judge Parker.) In Australia, he's the star of his very own top-selling comic book. And in Sweden, there's an entire amusement park -- called, no kidding, Phantomland -- devoted to his exploits. Batman, by contrast, has to make do with tacky little variety shows at U.S. theme parks.

And just who, you might well ask, is this muscular fellow in the black mask and purple body suit? The people who made The Phantom answer that question in a prologue titled, appropriately enough, "For those who came in late ...." Four hundred years ago, bloodthirsty pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood attacked a merchant ship off the coast of Bengalla Island. (Don't bother looking for it on a map.) A young passenger watched in horror as the pirates killed his father. That same little boy was later washed ashore on the edge of the dense Bengalla jungle, where he was aided by native warriors who accepted him into their tribe. The lad grew up to be the very first Phantom, a masked hero dedicated to fighting for truth, justice and ... whoops. I mean, dedicated to fighting piracy, cruelty and injustice.

The Phantom had a son who took over the family business when his father died. The son in turn passed the job over to his own son. And so it went, one generation to the next. Since each new Phantom wore the same superheroic costume, and continued to behave in the same superheroic manner, everyone in and around Bengalla assumed that the same guy just kept on keeping on. That is, they figured the Phantom was -- and is -- immortal. Hence the nickname Ghost Who Walks.

Throughout The Phantom, director Simon Wincer (Free Willy, Lonesome Dove) and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) remain affectionately faithful to the Phantom mythos, even as they allow their actors to give an occasional wink to the audience. As a result, their movie sprints playfully along a middle ground between self-conscious camp and straight-arrow swashbuckler. Almost all of the humor is intentional, and much of it is very amusing. But when there is serious evil-bashing to do, rest assured that the Phantom can throw a punch or dodge a bullet with the best of them. And unlike Batman, who spends most of his time skulking about in the deep, dark shadows, the Phantom does much of his do-gooding in the middle of the day, galloping around on a great white horse. To be sure, he packs a gun. Two of them, as a matter of fact. But he always shoots to wound, never to kill.

In the title role, Billy Zane looks and sounds like someone who is flat-out having the time of his life. Whether he's precariously dangling from a seaplane's pontoon or commandeering a policeman's horse during an eventful visit to New York City, he (or his stuntman) is the very model of virile grace. And the sheer joy he takes in running through his paces as a larger-than-life figure is highly contagious. Even when he isn't wearing the Phantom mufti, when he's traveling incognito as clean-cut and ultra-wholesome Kit Walker, he has the same self-assured spring to his step, the same can-do optimism in his grin. You get the feeling that, unlike the Batmen of Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer, Zane's Phantom thinks that being a superhero is the neatest thing in the whole wide world.

Indeed, Zane's Phantom has a lot in common with Christopher Reeve's Superman. Like Reeve, Zane appears to be utterly sincere and completely at ease, even as he makes it abundantly clear that he, too, gets the joke. For the most part, Zane keeps his tongue out of his cheek and his elbow out of our ribs. Rather than hammer at a wisecrack, he prefers to lightly toss off a witticism. Early in the story, the Phantom helps heroine Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) turn the tables on Sala (Catherine Zeta Jones), a femme fatale who isn't quite as nasty as she wants to be. "You could tie her up," the Phantom suggests. Diana has a better idea -- she punches Sala out cold. Without missing a beat, the Phantom adds, "Or not."

Loosely based on story lines from the first Phantom comic strips, Boam's clever screenplay keeps our hero in the 1930s and, more important, places him in conflict with an altogether worthy opponent: Xander Drax, a malevolent multimillionaire played by Treat Williams as equal parts Howard Hughes, Clark Gable and Richard III on laughing gas.

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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