As we went over last week, it can be difficult to successfully bring a long-forgotten character back into the public consciousness. And if the team behind The Green Hornet were incapable of doing that in the age of the internet, what hope would the creative team behind 1994’s The Shadow have? Outside of a few comic titles, The Shadow had all but left behind its relevancy when the radio drama faded away for good. By the time The Shadow moved forward with Russell Mulcahy as director and David Koepp as writer, The Shadow hadn’t graced any kind of screen for nearly 40 years. While the intentions behind The Shadow are admirable, the film itself if a rambling mess that makes little sense even to those familiar with the character.
In this incarnation of The Shadow, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has sought refuge following World War I in Tibet. Over time, Cranston has become an opium dealer and violent warlord. Kidnapped one evening, Cranston is taken to Tulku (played by Brady Tsurutani and voiced by Barry Dennen), a mystic who will teach Cranston to harness his inner darkness for the forces of good. After a quick fight with a living knife called Phurba (voiced by Frank Welker), Cranston moves to New York where he creates a new life as a wealthy playboy. New York is a buzz with chatter about the mysterious Shadow. Over dinner with Wainright Cranston (Jonathan Winters), a relative of Lamont’s and high-ranking police officer, Lamont uses his powers to keep Wainright’s interest in the Shadow nonexistent. Meanwhile, Lamont meets Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), a socialite with uncanny psychic abilities. Due to her abilities Lamont keeps his distance from Margo, fearing she’ll discover his secret. This coincides with a mysterious delivery at a local museum. When the delivery is examined, it is discovered that it is the tomb of Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last known descendant of Genghis Khan. Able to manipulate people with his thoughts, Khan begins his quest for world domination by making Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen), a nuclear scientist, create a nuclear bomb. The Shadow is up against a ruthless villain with powers that match his own in a battle that will determine the fate of the free world.
Before we get further into the shortcomings of The Shadow, let’s take a brief look into the few things the film got right. First off, the film has a very neat Art Deco design. The cityscapes and sets are visually pleasing, though the film can’t make them seem real. The sets look like sets, but they are well designed sets. With his raspy voice and matinee idol good looks, Alec Baldwin is possibly the best possible casting choice for the role of Lamont Cranston. With the exception of the early scenes where Baldwin is playing doped up and wearing the fakest wig imaginable, Baldwin comes across as a legitimate movie star. Except Baldwin isn’t really a movie star in the traditional sense. His roles as the leading man are with rare exception entirely forgettable. Baldwin’s finest and most memorable work is in supporting roles like in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The greatest shortcomings of The Shadow is asking the audience to root for a once opium kingpin. This is emphasized by having Lamont Cranston’s transformation into a force for good happen off screen. Not only is Cranston kidnapped, he’s never given a choice about his transformation. After his fight with the sentient knife, the story flashforwards years and Lamont is now a hero and no longer a murderous warlord. This decision also shortchanges Cranston’s alter ego as the Shadow. Leaving his transformation off screen also leaves a chance for the audience to understand the limits of the Shadow’s powers off screen. So when it comes to the film’s hero, it seems as if they’re making up the rules as they go along. The strengths and weaknesses of its main character are revealed only when necessary. Making matters worse, the Shadow wears an obviously fake mask when fighting evil. Why does this character who moves around in the darkness, invisible to his enemies wear a mask?
The Shadow also features an expansive ensemble cast, but many of these actors are miscast. While Tim Curry, Peter Boyle, and Penelope Ann Miller fit their respective roles, much of their characters are so wafer thin that their immense talent is squandered. John Lone as Khan is neither menacing nor intimidating. Then again, this film looks at Asian culture much in the same way as a Charlie Chan movie. Probably the biggest role that is miscast is the role of Wainright, played by Jonathan Winters. Mostly known as a comedian, it is impossible for Winters to come across as anything but a lovable oaf. It takes a great leap of the imagination to imagine the squinting Winters as a hard-boiled detective, world weary from a live patrolling the streets. I keep thinking he’ll start talking about eggs.
The legacy of this particular version of The Shadow is basically tied to the few remaining pinball machines that bear the movie’s name. It’s entirely possible that more people have played the pinball game than have actually seen the movie. After bombing, The Shadow would mark the end of Alec Baldwin’s days as a leading man. He would, as before mentioned, move onto memorable supporting roles. Director Russell Malcahy has continued working, mostly in TV and music videos, but has never been given another project with the size of The Shadow. Only writer David Koepp seems to have escaped unscathed, which is remarkable considering that the writing is the weakest link in the film. But when you’ve done work with Spielberg, another opportunity is around the corner. The only thing remarkable about The Shadow is the middle ground it occupies between the grim and gritty superhero film and the high camp superhero film. Coming in that time when the superhero movie was yet to be figured out, it’s one of those films that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Who knows what evil lurks inside the hearts of men? The Shadow doesn’t quite know.