'The Phantom': An Empty Suit
The Good News: THE PHANTOM (2009) TV mini-series is a big step up from RHI Entertainment’s poverty-stricken FLASH GORDON TV movie/series.
The Bad News: It’s still a serious misfire, showing many signs of that inexplicable (to comics fans) 1960’s – 70’s era disdain for the source material. Why, one wonders do producers choose to option comic book/strip characters if the basic concepts seem to embarrass them?
Either they make changes intended to make the characters more “realistic” or they go down the path of camp humor, to show that they are above the material.
Seldom do they appear to recognize the simple iconic power that has make these four-color heroes successful for decades. Intentionally or not, this film adaptation goes down both roads.
In the 4-hour mini-series/backdoor pilot THE PHANTOM, the filmmakers have chosen not to go with the still active 21st Phantom, but start afresh with his son. Fair enough, 70 plus years is a long time for anyone to hold the title.
However, they are not content to have this be the seamless, four century tradition of the comic strip, but instead construct an elaborate and personally tragic origin for this version of The Ghost Who Walks.
The last of the Phantom’s line is a semi-amnesiac 24-year-old who’s been given the name Chris Moore (Ryan Carnes) by his unknown-to-him adoptive parents. (Ray Moore was the definitive Phantom artist, and his mother’s name is Lee, presumably for creator Lee Falk.)
Phantom 21 is said to have died of cancer when he was two, mother Diana Palmer is killed off when he was five, when the car carrying the two was forced into the river by the Singh Brotherhood. The fact that in the strip Kit Walker the 22nd is supposed to have a twin sister and an adopted older brother is ignored — but never mind.
Gaping plot-holes have left the supposedly large and efficient organization dedicated to serving the Phantom unable to track down the missing heir to the legacy for 19 years.
Arrested for skylarking and trespassing charges, the young man is for some inexplicable reason DNA tested, something currently only permitted in NYC for those charged with violent crimes. This test is then further transmitted to police agencies world-wide, again wildly improbable for a supposedly more realistic take on the material.
Let it pass; the movie shows NYPD cars and paramedics responding to incidents in New Jersey, even though the jurisdiction of NY policemen investigating in NJ is later brought up within the same movie.
Again, let it pass — it allows the ‘Bpaa Thap’ (the Jungle Patrol of the comics) to find him (having somehow missed newspaper photos of the ‘wild child’ found after the accident), and get his parents conveniently killed off.
Things like this go on throughout the whole picture, as if father and son writing team Daniel Knauf (CARNIVÁLE) and Charles H. Knauf tried to put as many lapses of logic and inconsistencies into the script as possible, and then have references that point them out. I strongly doubt this is the case, and if the film had moved at a better pace they all might not have seemed so glaring and obvious.
And that above-mentioned inconsistent tone kicks in between the semi-realistic scenes and any time Singh Brotherhood leader Rhatib Singh (Cas Anvar) is on screen, apparently trying to out-camp Treat Williams’s performance in the 1996 PHANTOM. If his arch manner and sudden bursts of violence are supposed to remind us of Heath Ledger’s Joker, it doesn’t work.
Neither, sadly does the new Phantom’s costume, or the actor picked to play him. The suit is supposed to be a high-tech bullet-proof suit that gives the wearer enhanced strength and speed — which only seems effective against test dummies, as Chis seems nearly over-matched by every antagonist thrown at him.
Surley, if the organization had such a wonder suit (reportedly delveloped years before) they could have trained someone how to use it, instead of expecting the last of the Walkers to get up to speed in a few months.
Of course, without the right man you have only an empty suit. Or perhaps the premise for a different, somewhat interesing show.
Ryan Carnes is actually a pretty skilled and likeable actor, and he does a good job with what he’s given.
But in the final analysis, he looks like a short, wiry kid swallowed up in a bulky and unappealing costume — and not the imposing figure the legendary Phantom should be.
When you have an actor that’s not tall in a role like this, there are ways to make him appear taller and more impressive (as with Michael Keaton’s Batman). Director Paolo Barzman (DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, 2008) doesn’t seem to attempt this at all, shooting Carnes in such a way that almost everyone, including his female co-stars, looks bigger and more capable than he does.
Isabella Rossellini is wasted in a thankless, and colorless scientific villain role. I originally thought she might be head of the Brotherhood, as their leader in the comic strip is female.
The script offers no real surprises, as just about every plot development is telegraphed or predicable.
Despite all this, the film is actually fairly entertaining, particularly if you’re not already familiar with or attached to the character. It looks pretty good, with generally nice photography from DP Pierre Jodoin.
THE PHANTOM ends with a promise of further adventures. With some re-casting, a better costume (not necessarily 100 % comics-accurate, just not so awkward-looking) and some refinements— such as not making the hero so dependent on a thousands of miles away support team—a series might have possibilities.
However, at the moment I’m not too anxious to see The Ghost Who Walks return to SyFy.