The Phantom (2009)

PhantomTV-DVDCoverI probably never would have heard of this film had I not spotted it in a bin at the dollar store (which wasn’t where I was expecting to find movies, but hey, can’t beat the price.) Originally made for television as a two-part miniseries, it aired on Canadian TV in 2009 and then the Syfy channel the following year. The DVD preserves the miniseries format, but it can essentially be considered a three-hour movie with an intermission.

The creation of Lee Falk, the Phantom debuted in 1936, two years before Superman. He can be considered the first superhero, in that he was the first adventure character to wear a superhero-style costume and mask. And despite a big-screen attempt in 1994, the Phantom has been waiting longer than any other superhero character for a good movie adaptation. This is not that adaptation.

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Sorry kid, your film wasn’t even up to the level of Billy Zane’s.

The film is set in the present day, and stars Ryan Carnes as Chris Moore — who, unbeknownst to himself, is really Kit Walker, having been adopted at a young age. He’s a law student in his final year who spends his time goofing off and going on parkour runs across New York. While it’s a useful skill for a superhero to have, using it as his introduction makes it feel as if it was included primarily to make him seem young and hip. But there really isn’t a whole lot to the character as written here; a few notes of emotional depth during which Carnes acquits himself reasonably well, but it’s ultimately a forgettable performance. The same applies to his love interest Renny, played by Cameron Goodman; she serves little purpose except to provide a veneer of romance, be a potential target, and look pretty.

The supporting cast is a little more interesting, though only a little. Jean Marchand plays the mentor figure who brings Kit in and informs him of his real name and heritage, as the heir to Phantom legacy. He gives the role a touch of warmth, and large dose of exasperation as Kit doesn’t take to it well. Sandrine Holt plays Guran, one of the trainers/assistants working with Kit, who is a member of the tribe that has supported the Phantom from the beginning. A larger role may have been in order here, as Holt does well with the character, who is notable for being a strong female supporting character in a superhero film who isn’t a love interest. Ivan Smith and Luis Oliva are also present as the “tech support” for the Phantom’s lair, with some helpful gadgets and light humor, but their roles are just barely on the side of being worth mentioning.

The only real standout performance is with the villain. The foes in the film are the Singh Brotherhood, longtime adversaries of the Phantom who operate a global criminal syndicate. Isabella Rosselini is slumming it as a scientist with a mind control device, and her performance feels a little phoned in. But Cas Anvar brings the main villain Raatib Singh to life skillfully. He’s dynamic, smarmy, a bit hammy, and has a great villainous sense of humor. Anvar’s performance is definitely the highlight of the film.

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How about we just have a movie about this guy instead?

The actors mostly give decent, if unspectacular, performances in the roles. The problems with the characters largely come from the writing. Chris/Kit is a bit whiny, and constantly comes off as trying to be “too cool for school”. Other characters are more shallowly written. There are twists and betrayals, but these are written without any semblance of logic. One character, doing the typical “redemptive death” scene, spills the beans on the villains’ plot… except that it’s all couched in cryptic clues so that the Phantom and his mentor have to spend extra time to figure it out. This is considerably worse than the usual “death-interrupted sentence” variety, because in the scene it would have been possible tell the scheme in the same number of words as the character actually used. They could have been perfectly clear about their meaning, but for some unknown reason chose to give the heroes a verbal rebus instead.

Another twist, of course, involves a mole on the Phantom’s team. I apologize for that slight spoiler (though it’s clear from the beginning that there’s a mole), and won’t be saying who the mole actually is. But I do have to discuss the major betrayal involved, because it doesn’t make sense even on its own terms. No matter how this betrayal is examined, the character in question is actively working against their own personal goals at several times in the film. The only rationale that can be applied is that their motives are both poorly thought-out and subject to change at whim. What a twist!

On a lesser note, the dialogue is mostly adequate, but seldom more. And I felt it was a bit tacky the way they kept ragging on the traditional Phantom costume. I understand it’s a little goofy by today’s standards, and I understand the urge to update it. But it just lacks class to harp on its appearance, particularly when the “new” version also looks kind of goofy.

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That has to be hard to see out of at night.

The biggest problems with the film have to be blamed on the director, Paolo Barzman. There are major issues with the film beyond the script, and they all come down to decisions that the director would be making. The least of these is that some of the musical choices are irritating; hip hop just doesn’t set the mood for a superhero piece, even if it is in an early pre-costume scene.

But my strongest complaints are visual. The camera work in this film renders it almost unwatchable at several points. Normal scenes are fine, but the moment any action gets started — from fight scenes to the parkour chases — it’s shaky-cam time. I’m not a big fan of shaky-cam, but it can be handled well, and there are degrees to it. In some films, it’s both mild in degree and lightly used. In other films, the camera jumps all over the place making it hard to watch. This film isn’t in that latter category… but only because it shoots right past it. One gets the impression that the cameraman was simultaneously making an inept try at Riverdance. The camera isn’t even locked onto the focal characters a lot of the time. And, amazingly, that’s not even the worst of it. In flashback scenes, including the opening to the film, the shaky-cam is augmented by a mess of visual effects that makes it extremely difficult to tell what’s going on. The scenes are downright painful to view.

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To all neurologists who want to empathize with their patients: this is what a really bad optical migraine looks like.

The terrible filming decisions take what could have been an acceptably mediocre film and lower it to one with only a few redeeming values. If you can stand to look at it, the basic plot is moderately entertaining, if a bit nonsensical in places. And the actors do all right, particularly Cas Anvar. But there’s not much to recommend here considering the severe flaws of the film.

Rating: 2 Stars

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About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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5 Responses to The Phantom (2009)

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Despite its flaws, I still have a warm spot for the 90s ‘The Phantom’ movie. It was fun. I don’t know if I’ll ever tee up this one, but I enjoyed reading your look at it, Morgan.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    I feel like I had heard that this was better than the Billy Zane version, but not by much. Have yet to see either, though they’re obviously on my list.

    • I don’t think it’s as good as the Billy Zane version. Less campy, perhaps, but the overall quality is lower, and the script is still dumb, just not dumb in a fun way the way the 90s version is.

  3. Lisa Perry says:

    I tried to watch this movie and after 10 or 15 mins I turned it off because it was just stupid, after turning it off I watched the original movie with Billy Zane.

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