Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Simon Wincer|
|Written by||Jeffrey Boam|
|Based on||The Phantom|
by Lee Falk
|Music by||David Newman|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$17.3 million (domestic)|
The Phantom is a 1996 Australian-American superhero film directed by Simon Wincer. Based on Lee Falk's comic strip The Phantom, the film stars Billy Zane as a seemingly immortal crimefighter and his battle against all forms of evil. The Phantom also stars Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar and Patrick McGoohan. The film's screenplay by Jeffrey Boam is loosely inspired by three of The Phantom stories, "The Singh Brotherhood", "The Sky Band" and "The Belt"; but adds supernatural elements and several new characters.
Principal photography began in October 1995 and concluded on February 13, 1996. The film was shot in California, Thailand and Australia.
The Phantom was released on June 7, 1996, and received mixed reviews from film critics, who were divided over whether its pulp adventure approach was charming and authentic or vapid and dull. Despite financial failure in its theatrical release, the film has enjoyed success on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, and has developed a cult following.
In the early 16th century, a young boy helplessly witnesses his father's death at the hands of Kabai Sengh, the ruthless leader of the Sengh brotherhood who attacked their ship. The boy jumps overboard and is washed ashore on an island called Bengalla, where he is found by local tribesmen, who take him to their village. There he is given the Skull Ring, swears to devote his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice, and as an adult adopts the identity of "The Phantom", a masked avenger. The role of The Phantom is passed on from father to son through four hundred years, leading people to believe in a single, immortal figure.
In 1938, Kit Walker, the 21st Phantom, finds a man named Quill leading a mercenary group in the jungle. The group is searching for one of the Skulls of Touganda, which grants its owner a tremendously destructive power. The Phantom saves the native boy they have kidnapped to be their guide and captures Quill's men, leaving them to be picked up by the Jungle Patrol. Revealed as a member of the Sengh Brotherhood and the man who killed Kit's father - whose ghost frequently appears to Kit to give him advice - Quill flees with the Skull and returns to the United States.
In New York City, Kit's ex-girlfriend from college, Diana Palmer, is a frequent traveler whose uncle, Dave Palmer, is the famous owner of the World Tribune newspaper. The paper has been investigating power-hungry business man Xander Drax, a shady character with a reputation for having dealings with criminals. Palmer has managed to uncover that Drax is connected to a mysterious spider web symbol, which he traces back to the Bengalla Jungle. He sends Diana to investigate, but makes the mistake of telling New York's corrupt police commissioner, who is allied with Drax, of Diana's trip. The airplane is hijacked by Drax's female air pirates led by femme fatale Sala; Diana is abducted and taken to their base on the waterfront in Bengalla. Having been informed of Diana's abduction by the Jungle Patrol's captain Phillip Horton, the Phantom rescues Diana and escapes from Quill and his men to his headquarters, the Skull Cave.
Back in New York, now dressed as his civilian self, Kit meets with David Palmer at the World Tribune and once again meets with Diana, who has mixed feelings about him since his sudden disappearance several years before. Diana's would-be suitor Jimmy Wells mentions he had seen one of the skulls in the Museum of World History. Kit and Diana hurry there and are captured by Drax and his men, who steal the second Skull and unite it with the first, revealing the location of the third Skull on an uncharted island in the Andaman Sea known as the Devil's Vortex. Kit manages to escape from Drax and his henchmen and, as the Phantom, evades the police outside the museum. Meanwhile, after Sala reveals that Diana is his girlfriend, she flies Drax, Quill and Diana to the Devil's Vortex, not knowing that the Phantom has managed to hitch a ride on one of the plane's landing pontoons.
On the island, Drax meets with the pirate Kabai Sengh, direct descendant of the Brotherhood's original leader, who possesses the third Skull. Sengh warns Drax of the existence of the Fourth Skull, which controls the power of the other three. The Phantom appears and battles both men, with Kabai Sengh killed by his own pool of sharks, and Diana and Sala cooperate to defeat the other villains. Drax unites the three Skulls and turns their power against the Phantom; in the process, Quill is accidentally hit and disintegrated. The Phantom uses the Fourth Skull - his own ring - to turn the Skulls' power back against them, destroying them and Drax in a powerful explosion. As the island is destroyed, the Phantom narrowly escapes with Diana and Sala.
In Bengalla once again, Diana reveals to the Phantom she has figured out his secret and his double identity. Kit removes his mask, telling her that he is only allowed to reveal all of his secrets to one person, the woman he intends to marry, but she leaves again for New York. Kit's father laments his son's failure to pursue Diana, but states that she will return to the Phantom's jungle, and to Kit, one day.
Rumours of a Phantom movie adaptation had first started to circulate when director Sergio Leone expressed his interest in the property in an interview. Leone had started to write a script and scout locations for his proposed film version of the Phantom, which he planned to be followed by an adaptation of Lee Falk's other comic-strip hero, Mandrake the Magician. The second project was never finalized.
Joe Dante was originally attached to direct a Phantom film for Paramount Pictures in the early 1990s, and he developed a draft of the script together with Jeffrey Boam. Dante and Boam's script was originally tongue-in-cheek in tone and the climax included a winged demon. When Paramount pushed the film back a year, Dante left for other commitments, and eventually ended up being credited as one of the executive producers. According to Dante:
I developed the script with the late Jeff Boam, who wrote Innerspace, as a kind of a spoof. We were a few weeks away from shooting in Australia when the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax. A year or so later it was put back into production - sans demon - only nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was - disastrously - played straight. Many unintentionally funny moments were cut after a raucous test screening and I foolishly refused money to take my name off the picture, so I'm credited as one of a zillion producers.
Joel Schumacher was considered to direct the film, but the job was given to Simon Wincer, who had been a fan of the character since childhood. When he traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Paramount executives, he discovered that they intended to release the film in July 1996.The Phantom was originally intended to be filmed in Hawaii, and the production schedule would go over budget by $10 million. Wincer decided to film it in New York City, Thailand and his native Australia, reducing the budget by $12 million as a result.
Wincer then cast Billy Zane, who had won praise for his work as a psychopath in Dead Calm, as the Phantom. Zane, a huge fan of the comic strip after being introduced to it on the set of Dead Calm, won the part after competition from Bruce Campbell and New Zealand actor Kevin Smith. After his casting, he spent over a year and a half to get the right muscular look of the Phantom. He also studied the character's body language in comic strip artwork, carefully imitating it in his performance.
Filming began on October 3, 1995, in Los Angeles at Greystone Park. For the exterior of the Palmers' English-style manor the mansion of Playboy magazine's Hugh Hefner, a longtime fan of the Phantom, was used.
The Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park doubled for New York City's Central Park Zoo, the setting for a chase sequence. Shooting continued on Hollywood studio backlot streets that recreated the 1938 version of New York City. Over fifty vintage cars were used on the streets, and four hundred extras costumed in authentic period clothing were employed.
In October, the production traveled to Thailand for seven weeks of filming there, with the country doubling as the Phantom's fictional home country Bengalla. Action scenes such as the Phantom saving a boy from a collapsing rope bridge were filmed here. Production designer Paul Peters changed a deserted warehouse in the town Krabi into a large sound stage, where the Phantom's Skull Cave abode was erected, including his Chronicle Chamber, vault, and radio and treasure rooms.
In December, the crew traveled to Australia, where production occupied eight sound stages at the Village Roadshow Studios in Brisbane, Queensland. At Stage 5, the Singh Pirates Cave was constructed, constituting the largest interior setting ever built in the country. The New York offices of Xander Drax were constructed on Stage 6. Filming in Queensland also took the production to the Brisbane City Hall, where the interior lobby was redecorated to resemble a New York museum, where Kit Walker finds one of the three Skulls of Touganda. Manor Apartment Hotel in Brisbane was used as a stand in for a New York skyscraper.
On the final day of shooting, the production relocated to Los Angeles, California to complete a scene that would ultimately end up deleted from the final cut of the movie, where the Phantom wrestles a lion. Filming concluded on February 13, 1996.
Many scenes developing the romance between the Phantom/Kit Walker and Diana Palmer were cut in order to make the film more fast-paced. An action scene featuring the Phantom fighting a snake were also cut. A scene with the Phantom and his horse Hero rearing in the sunset was cut out of the film, but shown at the end of the 1996 A&E documentary The Phantom: Comic Strip Crusader.
This section contains a list of miscellaneous information. (April 2017)
The film features several elements from Lee Falk's first two Phantom stories from the 1936 daily newspaper strips, "The Singh Brotherhood" and "The Sky Band". Several of the characters in the film derive from these stories: Kabai Sengh (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), leader of the Sengh Brotherhood (the name of the brotherhood was changed to 'Sengh' in the movie, to avoid offending people named Singh), Sala (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), leader of the Sky Band, a group of female air pirates, and Jimmy Wells (Jon Tenney), a wealthy playboy.
The more realistic plots of Falk's original stories were dropped in favor of an adventure tale that featured the supernatural "Skulls of Touganda". Falk's story "The Belt", where the Phantom fights the killer of his father, was also a major influence on the story; but the name of the murderer is changed from Rama to Quill, and the 20th Phantom, played by Patrick McGoohan, is portrayed as a much older man in the film than in the comic strip.
To coincide with the premiere of the film, the Phantom was used as a part of the Got Milk? campaign, based on the character's drinking milk in the comic. Two different Phantom action figures were made by Street Player, and promotional Phantom-rings were also offered. Different sets of Phantom collecting cards were also available in countries such as the United States, Australia, Finland and Sweden. Movie theater popcorn tubs and paper soda cups featuring the film's poster were also used to help promote the film.
The film suffered the same fate as two other period-piece comic book/pulp adaptations of the 1990s, The Shadow (1994) and The Rocketeer (1991), and did not fare very well at the box office in the United States, debuting at number six the weekend of June 7, 1996. It has since sold well on VHS and DVD.
Reviews were mixed. It has a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 42 reviews, with the consensus "The script gives Billy Zane little to work with, and thus he plays the Phantom as a friendly but completely one-dimensional hero."Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it one of the best looking movies he had ever seen, giving the film three and a half stars out of four.
Many critics were pleased with The Phantoms simple, nostalgic tone. For example, in the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan described it as a modest, unassuming film which "is gently self-mocking as opposed to excessively wised up. With a straight-arrow hero and villains that wouldn't scare a tadpole, it holds our interest via its human scale and the pleasure it takes in being true to its origins." He praised the director's synergy with the script and actors, and approved of how the action sequences rely on practical stunts rather than computer generated images, saying this lends faithfulness to the character's pulp roots.Godfrey Cheshire III similarly wrote in Variety that the film "brings a light touch to appealingly old-fashioned action material, creating a fast-moving yarn". He approved of the decision to sidestep the Phantom's African origin (which was considered racially insensitive by the time of the film's release) instead of reworking it, and while he acknowledged that the character's portrayal is two-dimensional, he felt that this was also appropriate to the old-fashioned tone. British critic Kim Newman wrote for Empire that the movie "has a pleasant feel - few superheroes have been as sunny and optimistic - as Zane breezes through chases and fights, stops for the odd quip - and pals around with a heroic horse, a dashing dog and the helpful ghost of his father", and gave the movie three out of five stars. In contrast, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly reviled the title character as hopelessly outdated, adding that "As the Phantom, Billy Zane, buff to the max, has a likable insouciance, but there's not much he can do to flesh out this relic. With its generic stunts and chases, its hand-me-down cheeseball mysticism (the plot hinges on a hunt for magic skulls), the film, while crisply shot, has even less personality than such crusader retreads as The Rocketeer and The Shadow." He gave the film a C.
Billy Zane originally signed up to do two sequels, but these were not made because of the disappointing sale of tickets for The Phantom in theaters.
In 2008, Paramount Pictures was considering creating a sequel to The Phantom, with Zane, Swanson and Zeta-Jones returning in their roles. In December 2008, it was announced instead that a reboot of the Phantom series was in the works, called The Phantom: Legacy, to be produced by Bruce Sherlock (who was also an executive producer of The Phantom) and written by Tim Boyle. Sam Worthington was being considered for the lead role. By 2014, plans for this film had fallen through as well, and producer Mark Gordon was instead attached to a Phantom reboot.
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A novelization of The Phantom was written by Rob MacGregor, the author of a series of Indiana Jones novels. This novel included a more detailed look at the backstory of many characters, and the origin of The Phantom. Several scenes that were omitted from the final cut of the movie are also included.
The film's score was composed by David Newman, who previously collaborated with director Simon Wincer on Operation Dumbo Drop, and performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra under the composer's baton. A soundtrack album was released by Milan on June 4, 1996; La-La Land Records issued an expanded edition on July 3, 2012.