In Crimson Tide, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman exchanged goo-goo eyes and socks in the jaw; in Bad Boys, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence joshed and looked at the ground as they admitted they cared for each other. This summer's love fest is between Nicolas Cage and the actor he cites as a childhood idol, Sean Connery. In The Rock, the former is a tenderfoot FBI agent who specializes in chemical weapons, the latter a convict who once escaped from Alcatraz, and has been offered a pardon if he helps the FBI thwart an attack on San Fran by a pack of ne'er-do-well Marine renegades who've seized the famed prison island.
The testosterone doesn't stop with Connery and Cage, either. Ed Harris leads the ne'er-do-wells, and the huge supporting cast includes, among many others, David Morse, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, Bokeem Woodbine, Tony Todd and John C. McGinley--lots of Irish Spring users there. There are two women's parts of any significance--Vanessa Marcil as Cage's sexy girlfriend and Claire Forlani as Connery's daughter. Both roles are tiny and entirely obligatory, except that without them there'd be little evidence that we were on a planet where women exist.
Exactly what planet The Rock takes place on seems a fairly open question anyway--it's matched only by the mystery of what planet the screenwriters (three are credited) are from. On a basic, serviceable premise well-suited for exploiting the Alcatraz setting, The Rock embroiders a crazy-quilt plot so baroque that it might have dazed a 19th-century melodramatist. Harris is miffed about the government's failure to give credit to those who died in illegal covert ops, while Connery's link to the temperamental FBI chief (John Spencer) somehow involves a cover-up of both a UFO landing at Roswell, New Mexico, and the JFK assassination. And to make sure nothing is left out, Cage's girlfriend is pregnant and wants to marry him.
The Rock is enormously, audaciously stupid, and it's freewheelingly nuts. It's also more than a little entertaining--its bizarre excesses go way beyond mere commercialism, into a realm of willful kitsch that has a certain integrity. Besides, at the center of it is a terrific comic performance by Cage, whose great, fleshy, soulful presence keeps the movie from crumbling into flash-edited entropy. The actor is clearly so overjoyed to be working with Connery that he may be unaware that he quite handily steals the picture from the Scot--Connery walks through this one with the mild, slightly cross manner that has become his standard persona the last few years.
If The Rock is an example of a film that entertains through excess, The Phantom entertains, at least modestly, through lack of ambition. Apart from a Columbia serial in the '40s (starring Tom Tyler, better remembered as Captain Marvel in another '40s serial), this is the first screen outing for writer/illustrator Lee Falk's purple-suited title hero of the newspaper funnies. Even though he has some claim to being the very first costume hero in the comics--he debuted in 1936, beating Superman into print by two years and Batman by three--and maybe the coolest, the Phantom has never attained the status of an American icon that both of his competitors have.
For this reason, and probably in light of the disastrous fate of The Shadow, the last pulp hero to be given a modern movie makeover, the producers of The Phantom have taken it easy. The film has no star power, and modest production values for this sort of blockbuster wanna-be.
As it turns out, that's to the picture's benefit. Instead of getting caught up in a lot of labored ersatz mythos, like The Shadow, The Phantom dispenses with the exposition on the origin of the character in a few brisk flashbacks--it's a persona inherited by generation after generation of jungle heroes descended from the survivor of a pirate attack, thus creating the impression of an eternal avenger of evil.
Once this is established, director Simon Wincer cranks up the action, and keeps it coming. Many of the chase scenes recall the Indiana Jones films, but since they weren't new in those pictures, either, it's unfair to complain (The Phantom's script is by Jeffrey Boam, who wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Wincer, the capable, unpretentious hack who helmed Operation Dumbo Drop, has a nice feel for old-fashioned movie action--after the frenetic, MTV-style cutting of a film like The Rock, the simple, linear presentation of The Phantom can seem almost balmy.
Most of the cast is pleasing, as well. Billy Zane, who stuffs a purple leotard rather fetchingly, plays the title role with casual charm. Kristy Swanson is his love interest Diana, and Catherine Zeta Jones is the shady aviatrix who leers at them both with equal enthusiasm. Patrick McGoohan slums in a few quick bits as the ghost of Zane's father, but the standout in the cast is Treat Williams as the brashly American master criminal Xander Drax, a gee-whiz kid who never bothered to grow up.
Don't misunderstand: The Phantom isn't anything like a really good film. It's just better, less ill-conceived than most films of its type. I've always loved the Phantom, with his terse, elliptical way of speaking--rarely does he speak more than four words between ellipses. It's not surprising to learn that Falk counted Samuel Beckett as an influence. I loved the Shadow, too, and after seeing the wretched treatment he received in the movies two years ago, I'm relieved to see the Phantom make his feature debut in an easygoing, off-the-cuff entertainment that's actually possible to enjoy.
The question remains, however: For whom, exactly, was this picture made? It's not as if the Phantom has a big American baby-boomer following, like Batman or Superman, or even Spiderman, if they ever get around to making a film of him. As it turns out, The Phantom wasn't made for much of anybody, apart from a few nostalgists like me, in this country. It was made for the Australians. For some reason, the Phantom has a huge following in that country, as does Zane ever since he appeared in the 1989 Aussie thriller Dead Calm. Even if The Phantom proves a ghost at the U.S. box office--as seems likely--Zane may be founding a franchise down under.
The Phantom: Directed by Simon Wincer; with Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones and Patrick McGoohan. Rated PG.
Directed by Michael Bay; with Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, David Morse, Claire Forlani, Vanessa Marcil and Michael Biehn.