'The Shadow' is very good, even if The Shadow isn't entirely good

July 01, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Who knows what fun lurks in the heart of "The Shadow"?

Heh, heh, heh. The critic knows.

This dense, deliriously entertaining film re-creates the legendary radio hero of the '30s in the full splendor of the fashions of his age. But what's compelling about The Shadow is that he may be the most ambiguous superhero ever invented -- a devious, debauched intellectual, a kind of Oscar Wilde with the powers of the Amazing Kreskin and two long-barreled .45s tucked away under his trench coat.

It's no surprise that Orson Welles created the original on the network radio of 1937 (through 1939, when a host of other actors took on the part.) In Welles' resonant, mahogany tones lay the suggestion of deep contradictory impulses combined with the possibility of higher sources of knowledge; he gave The Shadow a tragic dimension. It was a provocative conceit -- a neurotic, crypto-fascist playboy/secret policeman, with a network of informers and the ability to implant hypnotic suggestions, all working for good, if not quite whole-heartedly.

Unlike Superman's profoundly uninteresting macho all-Americanism, unlike Batman's dime novel Scandinavian angst (a mere pose), The Shadow (Alec Baldwin) actually knows evil experientially. He alone among the big boys has done it; he alone among them has sniffed its seductive aroma, felt the caress of its vapors, experienced the post-prandial satisfactions of its accomplishment. Represented in murky flashback as a former adventurer in the Himalayas, he's a recovered slaughter-artist, an ex-warlord on a 12-step program, whose enlistment in the cause of virtue is tenuous at best, and something only achieved at some cost.

Alec Baldwin has always had a maniacal streak, a sense of outlaw flashing brightly behind his intelligent eyes. That's why he was such a good ex-con in "Miami Blues" and such a good bank job pro in "The Getaway." It's also why he was such a dreary Jack Ryan in "The Hunt for Red October." He's too jagged a presence to accommodate unadorned virtue. And so it is that he makes a terrific Shadow, a.k.a. Lamont Cranston, New York socialite.

Lamont apparently lives a life of effete indolence; when he arrives for dinner with his Uncle Wainwright, the police commissioner of New York, the older man (Jonathan Winters) snaps, "Lamont, how can you always be late? You don't do anything." Of course Lamont does a lot: he's the proprietor of a shadowy network of informants united by a subterranean pneumatic tube system (it's the '30s, remember), who keep him apprised of crimes occurring in New York.

He seems to have no proper super powers, such as strength or invulnerability; he can't even fly. His only authentic supernatural gift is that he can always get a cab (a beautiful Cord, on call), which far outshines his other two rather mundane advantages: the strange ability to de-substantialize himself into vapor, which by some obscure property of physics still throws a shadow on the wall, and the previously mentioned ability to "cloud men's minds," i.e., implant hypnotic suggestions. But . . . shoot him he bleeds, knock him down and he aches, submerge him he drowns.

The plot is pure yellow-peril hokum. It seems that Ghengis Khan's direct descendant Shiwan Khan (John Lone) has arrived in art moderne New York city with a horde of mongol warriors and possessing the same arsenal of psych tricks The Shadow does. (They both studied under an Asian wise man; the difference is, the young Khan then murdered him). The Khan seeks a primitive energy implosion device ("Could you call that an . . . 'atomic bomb?,' " Cranston wonders, and a scientist replies, "Hmmm, yes, catchy."). The device is being constructed by War Department scientist Ian McKellen. The Khan's goal: to control the world.

The film takes its sweet, slow time starting, all the better to enjoy at leisure the brilliant reconstructions of the lost city of New York in the '30s. As a tour of a satiny, enchanted isle, "The Shadow" is awesome; credit production designer Joseph Nemec III with capturing the dark yet romantic glow of the Big Apple when it was at its biggest and most applesque.

Things begin to tick and whirr by the 20-minute mark, however, and after that the movie engrosses. It's not so potent a piece of popular entertainment as such '30s-set antecedents as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but it's much better than poor "Dick Tracy" and "Rocketman." It could use better minor character work; besides Baldwin and Lone, the others hardly register, including pretty Penelope Ann Miller in the thankless role of Lamont's Girl Friday, Margo Lane. But the real star of "The Shadow" is the evil that lurks in the heart of men, and The Shadow knows how to tell us about it without clouding our minds.

"The Shadow"

Starring Alec Baldwin and John Lone

Directed by Russell Mulcahy

Released by Universal

PG-13 rated

***

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