“The Phantom” (2009)

by A.J. Hakari


I’m tickled that filmmakers are still trying to get the Phantom to work. No, really, I’m serious — I grew up on retro action flicks like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, so I’m pulling for this most classic of costumed adventurers to get a fair shake on the big screen. But right off the bat, I knew that 2009’s The Phantom was a step in the wrong direction, on two counts: for having debuted on that dubious den of cinema known as Syfy, and for setting itself in modern times. For what it’s worth, the specifics of transplanting a character used to a period jungle environment into the now are handled about as well as they could be. But The Phantom is still stuck with no identity of its own, nor a rousing sense of adventure elevating it beyond a standard-issue comic book origin story.

College student Chris Moore (Ryan Carnes) is heir to an ancient crimefighting legacy — he just doesn’t know it yet. But on the same night his folks are given the Owen/Beru treatment by some mysterious baddies, Chris learns the truth about his real past. Over the course of hundreds upon hundreds of years, his ancestors have used the mantle of a purple-clad, seemingly immortal avenger known as the Phantom to combat injustice all over the world. As the last in his line and with no family to turn to, Chris is left with no choice but to pick up where his pops left off and train as the new Phantom. But in this technology-driven day and age, evil too has upgraded, and it’s going to take more than a pair of pistols and his fists for Chris to stop some brainwashed killers from carrying out a political assassination.

The Phantom epitomizes just about everything that can go wrong when you try to make an old entertainment property hip for the kids. The new Phantom is adept at parkour, traipses around the Big Apple instead of the jungle, and, in a rather cavalier way, ditches the old purple spandex outfit. That’s bold talk for a movie that replaces said threads with a get-up that’s better suited for an extreme snowboarder. Yep, The Phantom makes fast work of breaking Superhero Commandment #1: if the duds don’t work, the movie doesn’t either. Cheesy as it was, even the 1996 Billy Zane flick had the flavor of an old-timey adventure, with engaging action set pieces and a great production design. But his 21st-century successor trades all that in for lifeless locales that feel all the more like a succession of half-hearted sets rather than part of a living, breathing world.

Sure, The Phantom retains some aspects of the original comics, a la the iconic skull insignia and how our hero never deliberately kills. But with all the modernization involved, including the Phantom being backed up by a sophisticated and very well-funded intelligence agency, you almost wonder why there even needs to be a Phantom at all. An eleventh-hour twist supplies an answer, but it’s a weak stab at giving weight to the traditional fledgling superdude motions Chris goes through. You’re never convinced that there’s a reason Chris has to be the Phantom, other than that the mythology of the comics says so. He just sort of lets himself be ushed into fighting crime for the hell of it, undercutting a lot of what the Phantom stands for and stripping him of whatever personality he had left.

If you’re not that familiar with the character, The Phantom won’t make you a fan. If you’re sick to death of superhero origin movies, it’s not about to change your mind, either. It’s a basic comic book actioner that wrings a pretty dull but harmless experience out of a bloated three-hour running time. Jeer at the Billy Zane movie all you want, but where that had pirate ships, gunfights, and laser skulls, the new Phantom has a hero less likely to slam evil than he is to do the Dew.