Friday, March 7, 2014

The Shadow (1994)

I think the emblematic moment for The Shadow is the first scene in the nightclub, where Lamont Cranston meets Margot Lane.  It's a nicely designed set, art deco like much of the movie, and Alec
Baldwin is pulling off the mysterious-playboy thing reasonably well, and Penelope Anne Miller likewise with the femme fatale.  But as their Scene begins, the music, which up to this point had been a pleasantly old-fashioned big-strings score, switches to sub-David Sanborn smooth jazz.  Typical cheesy romance soundtrack circa 1994.

If the Shadow is a superhero, he's a very old-fashioned one - a generation before Superman and Batman, two or three before Spiderman.  Does he even have superpowers?  In some versions he can "cloud men's minds," achieving not just a degree of mind control but also invisibility;  that's the version the film follows, which certainly qualifies him.  But remember:  Batman doesn't have any superpowers.  Just a willingness to pose as a superhero, and the strength, tech, and craziness to pull it off.  Even if that's all the Shadow has, he still qualifies - but barely, because he's doing it in a pop-culture world that's just barely conceiving the superhero.  The Shadow is half superhero and half ordinary (extraordinary) crimefighter.  He's the pulp roots of the superhero.  With a nice touch of the noir - it's his own personal acquaintance with "the evil that lurks in the hearts of men" that gives him his power.  He's a reformed sinner, and so he knows how to deal with sinners.

Does the film get that?  Not really.  It's light and frothy and superficial, and it only barely nods in the direction of the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.  It's not interested in really plumbing the depths, really exploring the darkness.  It's content to give us a twinkly-eyed head-fake in the direction of the darkness, while really putting its energy into the shiny surfaces of the pulp's action orientation.

Rather than bring the "evil that lurks in the hearts of men" to life in a way that would feel evil in the '90s, they make it a period piece, playing up the roaring-'20s style.  Giving jaundiced '90s viewers a look at darkness as imagined in a less cynical age - or darkness as a cynical age imagined a less cynical age imagined it.  In other words, I think the various holes and absurdities in the plot are meant to suggest a certain gonzo naīvete in the pulps, too:  if this is Genghis Khan's grandson (i.e., Mongolian, by way of a China-based empire), why is he in a sarcophagus sent from Tibet?  And why does it have a Latin inscription?  Et cetera.  The film is full of ridiculousness like that (another fave:  why does the Tim Curry character just happen to have a big tank handy that he can fill with water at a moment's notice to drown Alec Baldwin?  I mean, what other reason does he have for owning such a thing?), but I think we're supposed to enjoy all that as being evocative of the adventure-at-all-costs mentality of the pulps.

But you know, I can go along with that.  A movie that took the Shadow seriously would have been interesting, but a committed, well-done throwback could have been interesting too.  In fact, my gripe is that the movie doesn't go far enough.  It's not ready to go full-on weird period-piece - it also wants to be a big mainstream mid-'90s superhero blockbuster franchise-building film with the Slurpee cups and the Happy Meal toys and all that shit.  So it's not going to risk having Alec Baldwin and Penelope Anne Miller flirting to, say, "Begin the Beguine."  They're going to give us smoove jazz. 

So it's too '90s steroidal to satisfy the pop-culture-antiquarian crowd, but of course, the popcorn-munching 15-year-old boy is just mystified.  Who the hell's the Shadow and why should I care? says he.

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