Comic book adaptations may be all the rage in Hollywood these days, but the huge success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 set off a previous wave of superheros on the big screen that carried well into the ’90s. One such resultant film was 1994’s The Shadow, based on the character of the same name – created by Walter B. Gibson – that got its start in pulp novels and radio dramas in the ’30s before being expanded into comics, television and more.
It’s interesting that the character of The Shadow would influence Batman comics, as it was just the opposite for the films. Not only did Batman’s success pave the way for The Shadow to be produced, but they are tonally quite similar. I suppose it says something about the derivative nature of both comics and film, but a quick rewrite of The Shadow script – which was penned by none other than David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man) – could result in a follow-up to Batman Returns (one better than Batman Forever and Batman & Robin to boot).
Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice) stars as Lamont Cranston, who begins as a ruthless opium kingpin in 1930s Tibet. After being abducted by servants of the ancient and powerful Tulku (voiced by Barry Dennen, The Shining), Lamont is taught to use his “black shadow” – the evil within him – as a force for good. Upon completion of his training, Lamont returns home to New York City, where he proceeds to clean up the streets. Meanwhile, he becomes enamored with Maro Lane (Penelope Ann Miller, Carlito’s Way), a socialite with vague telepathic abilities. Lamont’s vigilantism is successful until Shiwan Khan (John Lone, The Last Emperor), a fellow student of Tulku and the last descendent of Genghis Khan, begins to wreak havoc on the city. Khan hypnotizes Margo’s scientist father (Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings) to build atomic bomb in order to conquer the planet. Naturally, Lamont must use his powers to save the girl and save the world.
The Shadow adopts the pulpy 1930s – the time of character’s original creation – as its period setting. Russell Mulcahy (Resident Evil: Extinction, Highlander) directs some wonderful setpieces with a nice mix of practical and digital effects, but there’s not a lot of actual Shadow action. The sets themselves look like repurposed Gotham, and while Jerry Goldsmith’s (Alien) score is beautiful as always, it sounds like he was under pressure to make the main theme sound like Danny Elfman’s Batman.
The film features a wonderful cast of character actors and familiar faces that remains as impressive today as it was back in ’94. In addition to Baldwin, Miller, Lone and McKellen, the host of talent includes Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein), Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre), James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China), John Kapelos (The Breakfast Club) and comedian Jonathan Winters.
The Shadow received a lackluster Blu-ray release just last year via Universal, but the folks at Shout! Factory were quick to deliver a much-improved version. The high-definition transfer is crisp, clear and appropriately shadowy. The disc includes a 24-minute retrospective dubbed Looking Back at The Shadow, an interesting featurette composed of new interviews with Baldwin (!), Miller, Mulcahy, Koepp, cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Mission: Impossible) and production designer Joseph C. Nemec III (Terminator 2). The original trailer and a photo gallery round out the bonus material.
The Shadow was intended to launch a lucrative franchise, but a disappointing box office return – thanks largely to the release of The Lion King and The Mask the same summer – nixed those hopes. We all know box office return is not indicative of a film’s quality, however. Problematic as it may be, The Shadow is a fun super hero tale that weaves between dark fantasy and campy action-adventure.