In the midst of the current boom of comic book movies, it’s easy to forget that was similar, but smaller Hollywood infatuation with the genre in the wake of the Tim Burton Batman movies. Most of the them were quickly and deservedly forgotten but this take on the old radio serials probably deserves to be remembered better than it has been.
The Shadow catches Alec Baldwin at the height of the leading man phase of his career, before his personal life became a bigger story than his acting. He plays Lamont Cranston, who in post-World War I Tibet is better known as Ying-Ko, a ruthless warlord and opium kingpin. A boyish-looking mystic abducts Ying-Ko, however, and forces him to submit to a path of redemption for his crimes.
Seven years later, Cranston is back in New York City, trained in the mystical power to “cloud men’s minds,” which allows him to function as the mysterious crime fighter known as “the Shadow.” He rescues a Japanese-American scientist (Sab Shimino) from a trio of gangsters, and we learn that The Shadow has a army of helpers who all owe him their lives for some reason.
By day, Lamont Cranston is a playboy whose uncle (Jonathan Winters) is police commissioner, and he is very annoyed by this mysterious vigilante known as The Shadow.
In the meantime, the Museum of Natural History receives a mysterious donation, which turns out to be the coffin of Genghis Khan. Inside is Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the warlord’s last living decedent. He has the same mystic powers as The Shadow and a plan to finish his ancestor’s plans for world conquest. He is also a big admirer of the old Ying-Ko.
His plan involves the work of a scientist named Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellan), who’s working on an early version of the atomic bomb. His daughter, Margo (Penelope Ann Miller), has attracted Cranston’s attention, but her natural psychic abilities render her immune to his powers and dangerously privy to his secrets.
So what brings you to the Big Apple?
The tone of this film is unapologetically retro, very true to the radio serials and the period in which they were popular. That makes for some broad storytelling with not a lot of room for subtlety, but it is all in good fun. The film does managed to inject some more contemporary humor into some of the dialog, but it sometimes seems out of place.
None of the characters are written much deeper than what’s visible on the screen and some even less than that. In the thankless role of Farley Claymore, Margo’s obligatory fatuous and unwanted suitor as well as Khan’s equally obligatory toady, Tim Curry is left adrift by a less-than-paper-thin character and forced to shamelessly overact just to give him the illusion of a personality.
John Lone is effectively suave and barbaric as the heavy, and Baldwin is clearly having fun with his role. There is nothing here that you’re going to remember by the time you’ve put the DVD back into the Netflix envelope, but you won’t regret the two hours you just forgot.