When watching 'The Phantom' for the first time at the theater, about the only thing I knew of the movie was that the title character was once featured on the 80s cartoon "Defenders of the Earth." Despite reading a few select illustrated books, like the works of Alan Moore and reprints of EC Comic's horror series, I was unaware of the masked vigilante's origins in the world of comics. My only reason for paying money to see the movie on the big screen was simply due to fond childhood memories and having just seen the main actor in 'Demon Knight' the previous year. What I got out of it was a mildly entertaining summer actioner with affections for the swashbuckling adventure serials of old.
The movie starts with a quick summary on the legend of the Phantom, a mysterious crime-fighter who swears to rid the world of piracy and all forms of injustice. A couple of hundred years later, Kit Walker (Billy Zane) is the 21st successor to don the costume after his father was murdered six years earlier. After a brief confrontation with treasure-hunter Quill (James Remar), Kit discovers the wealthy megalomaniac Xander Drax (Treat Williams) is on the hunt for the Skulls of Touganda, three jewel-encrusted skulls with immense power. During his pursuit, he bumps into old-flame Diane Palmer (Kristy Swanson). fights the seductive pilot Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and cross paths with the Sengh Brotherhood, led by the pirate Kabai (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
Although based on the original pulp series by Lee Falk, 'The Phantom' feels too much like a joke or a spoof to be taken serious. To make matters worse, the filmmakers and cast don't appear to be in on the gag. Far too often, I found myself laughing at Zane's posture in his purple getup and firing his pistols from the hip than I did in simply enjoying the action. Granted, he does a fine enough job in the role, but he just doesn't pull it off as convincingly as he does in 'Demon Knight' or 'Titanic.' Treat Williams' ('Dead Heat') exaggerated performance doesn't help either, acting more like a caricature of 1920s, fast-talking gangsters than an intelligent villain worthy of the costumed hero's time and effort.
The over-the-top action sequences and dialogue also add to the unintentional humor and confusion, especially since much of the production and choreography gives the impression of being a throwback to the format of classic film serials. I'm just can't figure out when 'The Phantom' is ever supposed to be a genuine action/adventure flick. The movie is much more entertaining as a farce, which in its own way celebrates the genre rather than simply imitating it. It furthermore gives Simon Wincer's direction an alibi for being so silly and larger-than-life. Sadly, such is not the case, and the movie has not aged very well.
Revisiting 'The Phantom' today, it's no surprise the movie didn't turn into a franchise as initially hoped. It's just too goofy and cheesy to ever be taken seriously. While I still find it unexpectedly entertaining, if only mildly so, that's not due to any high production values -- though I have to admit, the elaborate set designs are pretty amazing and well done. Instead, the movie's high-spirits and swashbuckling sense of adventure make 'The Phantom' a campy thrill ride, reminiscent of old-fashioned moviemaking.
'The Phantom' swashbuckles its way onto Blu-ray (I know, corny) with pretty good picture quality which viewers may find attractive. Except, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) does show some issues which keeps the presentation from earning a higher score. Much of the transfer looks clean with a somewhat glamorous appeal and is fairly sharp. Particularly in the outdoor jungle scenes, foliage and surrounding trees are distinct and stunning. The video displays strong black levels and crisp, stable contrast, giving the image a bit of pop. Shadow details are clearly visible throughout the movie's runtime. Colors are bold and accurate while facial complexions appear natural and revealing.
The negatives are not many but noticeable and distracting enough to count cost star points. It's pretty clear the movie didn't go through any extensive remastering process as the transfer exhibits white specks in several scenes and one moment of a faint blue line running down the screen when the Phantom meets with the island's military captain (at around the 27 minute mark). There are also instances of black crush in a few low-lit interiors, especially during the airplane ride to Sengh Island. Other than that, 'The Phantom' will likely please fans in spite of these minor issues.
As with the video, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has a few impressive moments, but it's not enough to earn a higher score. While the fronts maintain good clarity with a sharp dynamic range, dialogue is strong and clear throughout. Low bass is surprisingly forceful and has no trouble providing the on-screen events with some appreciable depth. Imaging overall is attractive and welcoming with spotless interior acoustics. The issues come from the front-heavy mix clearly showing some forced rear activity and added sounds. While the track displays a bit of ambience here and there, most discrete effects are delivered only during certain action sequences. They are also easily located, sounding disappointingly artificial, and lack a sense of true immersion. In the end, however, these issues can be brushed off as minor nitpicks as I'm sure fans will find the lossless mix satisfying.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'The Phantom,' Lionsgate Films sees fit to release the movie with a very disappointing collection of bonus material. Other than a Blu-ray promo, the original Theatrical Trailer in standard definition is included.
Based on the classic pulp comics by Lee Falk, 'The Phantom' was intended as a serious action adventure flick. But it has since become a campy, cornball affair thanks largely to home video viewing. The Blu-ray shows a mostly good audio/video presentation with some minor issues, but the supplemental package is greatly lacking. In the end, this release is really for the fans.