After Tim Burton’s Batman, producers scrambled to get a comic book movie — any comic book movie — up on the screen. So why not the hero who directly inspired the Caped Crusader (Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 is a tale that’s directly influenced by The Shadow story “Partners of Peril”)?
The trouble is that The Shadow hadn’t really appeared in anything pop culture related since 1958’s The Invisible Avenger, two episodes of an unaired TV series that were edited together as a movie (it was also re-released with additional footage in 1962 as Bourbon Street Shadows). And explaining to audiences why a character was popular 60 years ago isn’t always easy.
In Tibet, Lamont Cranston (Alex Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross) has become the opium dealer known as Yin-Ko. But Tulku, a mystic in the body of a young boy, takes him away from his dissolute life and uses the Phurba, a talking dagger, to begin redeeming the man. For seven years, Cranston learns the physical and mental skills that he’ll need to stop evil — including the power to cloud men’s minds.
It’s a rough conceit to start your film with your hero killing his own men and basically being the villain of the story. It’s why in so many stories of The Shadow, they start with the good side first before revealing his origin.
In New York City, Cranston is a wealthy playboy who is really The Shadow, a vigilante who has created a network of agents to help him battle the forces of evil. He meets Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller, Adventures in Babysitting), a woman who gets through his defenses, possibly because she’s telepathic.
Shiwan Khan (John Lone, Rush Hour 2) is Tulku’s fallen student who claims to have murdered the holy man. His powers are beyond The Shadow’s and he claims to be the descendant of Genghis Khan. He’s amassed a large army and has kidnapped Margo’s father Reinhardt (Ian McKellen, Lord of the Rings) to create an atomic bomb for him.
Khan hypnotizes Margo into killing The Shadow, but he stops her as Cranston. She realizes they are one and the same, but there’s no time to reflect. The Shadow has to rescue her father from Khan’s men, who now include Reinhardt’s treacherous assistant Farley (Tim Curry, Legend), who The Shadow hypnotizes into jumping off a balcony to his death.
Inside the Hotel Monolith, Khan and The Shadow have a final battle involving the Phurba, which demands a peaceful mind. Overcoming his past, The Shadow masters the weapon, frees Reinhardt from his brainwashing and defeats Khan inside a hall of mirrors by telekinetically using a shard of a mirror to give him a lobotomy.
Oh yeah — Jonathan Winters shows up as Barth and Peter Boyle plays Moe Shrevnitz, one of our heroes many lieutenants.
Sam Raimi originally wanted to adapt and direct this film, but was supposedly denied the rights to it. You can see echoes of the character in his 1990’s film Darkman.
Russell Mulcahy ended up directing the film. He came from the world of music videos, where his directorial efforts for Duran Duran helped create the image for the band. His first work that got noticed in the U.S. was the Australian horror film Razorback, followed by his work in the first Highlander (we shouldn’t discuss Highlander 2: The Quickening). Today, he’s known for the MTV series Teen Wolf.
The film does a good job getting plenty of references in to past tales of The Shadow, but again, it’s a rough character to sell to modern audiences without explaining why he’s so awesome before you show where he came from.
This was planned to be a franchise, with plenty of tie-ins like an entire line of action figures from Kenner.
The toys are typical of the mid 1990’s Kenner design aesthetic, with limited poseability and action features. They fit in well with the Super Powers and Swamp Thing lines that came out several years before.
The original DVD of the film was out of print for some time (indeed, it goes for around $12 in most used stores, a lofty price) but was re-released on blu-ray in 2013. It’s worth looking for, especially if you’re someone like me that stayed awake late at night to listen to the 1970’s re-airings on the syndicated program Golden Age of Radio.