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Film / The Phantom (1996)

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"For those who came in late..."

The Phantom is a 1996 film based on the long-running comic strip of the same name. It stars Billy Zane as the 21st Phantom, Patrick McGoohan as his father the 20th Phantom, Kristy Swanson as his love interest Diana Palmer, Treat Williams as the villain Xander Drax, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dark Action Girl Sala.

Directed by Simon Wincer and produced by Paramount and Village Roadshow Pictures, the film is set in the 1930s, when the comic strip debuted, and draws characters and plot points from the comic's first few story arcs. This also means that it shows the Phantom's home as being in Southeast Asia, when the comic strip had long since retconned it to Africa.

The film provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Diana.
  • Actor Allusion: Casey Siemaszko portrays Quill's henchman, Morgan. Siemaszko and Billy Zane, the Phantom's actor, previously played Biff Tannen's gangmembers 3-D and Match, respectively, in the Back to the Future franchise.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Diana has much lighter hair than in the comics, possibly to help distinguish her from the raven-haired Sala. In several of the black-and-white comics she (Diana) is in fact stated to have red hair, but the color comics tend to keep it black.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Rob MacGregor's Novelization contains a very lengthy prologue, expanding greatly on the one from the movie, telling about the journey of the merchant ship Miranda, where it came from and where it was going, etc., before its fateful encounter with the Sengh Brotherhood that left the captain's son (who eventually becomes the first Phantom) the sole survivor.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Kabai Singh and the Singh Brotherhood become Kabai Sengh and the Sengh Brotherhood.
  • All Women Love Shoes: Sala takes a real liking to Diana's boots.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Hero's spine doesn't break when two adult humans jump off a low-flying plane (so having the added momentum) and land on his back.
  • Badass Biker: Sala and her gang are the aviatrix subtrope.
  • Badass Longcoat: Once Quill is back in New York City, he changes into a suit and a black leather trenchcoat that he retains until the very end of the movie.
  • Beam-O-War: When Drax tries to destroy Phantom with a death ray from his completed skull set, he answers with a ray of his own from his ring.
  • The Bermuda Triangle: The Devil's Vortex is a serial-numbers-filed-off version of the Bermuda Triangle, a region of ocean that has a reputation for ships disappearing in it; this turns out to be because the home base of the Sengh Brotherhood is in the middle of it, and they take strong measures against anybody who gets too close.
  • Big Bad: Xander Drax is the main antagonist of the film.
  • Big "NO!": Breen yells "No" when the Phantom grabs him by the shirt collar just as he's about to escape and rams him headfirst into a tree.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: What the Phantom mainly uses his two handguns for.
  • Bound and Gagged: Diana, who is held trussed up by Sala and Quill
  • Captain Obvious:
    Diana: Your dog's a wolf!
    Phantom: I know.
  • Cave Behind the Falls: The home of the Phantom is in a valley that can only be entered through a tunnel hidden by a waterfall.
  • Chekhov's Exhibit: One of the Skulls of Touganda can be found at a museum exhibit. One that both the bad guys and good guys happen to visit at the same time.
  • Clark Kenting: The Phantom's body language hardly changes when he's being Kit Walker, and his voice not at all; despite this, nobody seems to realise that they're the same person even after encountering both of them in quick succession. (Well, Diana figures it out eventually, and before Kit makes up his mind to tell her; but seriously, how is it not immediately obvious?) Diana figuring out the Phantom's secret identity is foreshadowed in the scene at the newspaper office where Kit talks and poses exactly like the Phantom did just a few scenes earlier, before realizing what he's doing and breaking the pose.
  • Continuity Cameo: The film includes a number of passing references to continuity elements from the comics, including names on background signage and cameo characters (such as Corporal Weeks of the Jungle Patrol).
  • Cool Old Guy: The previous Phantom was actively adventuring into his early sixties, and now advises his son from beyond the grave.
  • Crystal Skull: Three of them, silver, gold and jade, none of which is actual crystal.
  • Damsel in Distress: Diana, who is kidnapped several times in the film and faces a great deal of danger.
  • Dead Person Conversation: The Phantom has several conversations with his dead father, who acts as his Spirit Advisor. At least one of the conversations includes the ghost telling him something he didn't already know, suggesting it's a real ghost and not just his imagination. In another Guran walks in on Kit claiming he heard voices – plural. Al only hears the Phantom's side of the conversation in the cab, though.
  • Defiant Captive: Diana Palmer is kidnapped twice in the course of the story, but she is anything but weak and frightened. Instead, she's a wealthy treasure hunter with a taste for adventure in the Indiana Jones mold. When she's kidnapped for the first time, for instance, she is not scared but very angry: assuming she's being held for ransom, she declares that "you'll not get a red cent" from her family.
  • Defiant to the End: Despite stabbing the 20th Phantom in the back, Quill walks away from the encounter with a skull-shaped brand on his face from the Phantom's ring, making it pretty clear that the old man went down swinging.
  • Dem Bones: Styles, one of the thieves, has the misfortune of being strangled to death by a skeleton that inexplicably comes to life.
  • Die Laughing: Drax laughs when he gets killed by the Phantom's skull ring.
  • Dressed in Layers: The Phantom wears his purple outfit under his street clothes. At one point, he uses his discarded overclothes to distract some mooks.
  • Dwindling Party: In the opening scene, Quill, along with his henchmen Styles, Morgan and Breen, attempt to search for the silver Skull of Touganda. However, when Styles discovers the skull, he gets strangled to death. Quill, Morgan and Breen attempt to escape, but the Phantom pursues them. He sends Breen crashing into a tree and after he reaches Quill's car, the Phantom punches out Morgan and sends him out of his car. Quill is the only one to escape Bengalla with the Silver Skull, while Morgan and Breen are captured by the Jungle Patrol.
  • Establishing Character Moment: When the Phantom is first introduced, he uses his gun to blast Breen's gun out of his hand and rams him into a tree before pursuing Quill in his truck as the latter makes his escape.
  • Establishing Character Music: The Phantom's main theme is first heard when Quill, Breen and Morgan encounter him in the jungle.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Crime boss Ray Zephro is the only one to opt out of Drax's plan.
    Zephro: Count me out. This is wrong. Skulls? Forces of darkness? This isn't right. I was an altar boy, for the love of Pete, at St. Timothy's.
  • Eye Scream: When Drax finds out that librarian Dr. Fleming has been ratting on him to Diana's uncle, he asks him to look into a binocular microscope. When Fleming turns the adjustment knobs, blades shoot out of the eyepieces and blind him.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: All of the main villains at the end of the film.
    • Charlie gets shot at by Kabai Sengh's cannon and falls into the pool.
    • Kabai Sengh loses a fight with the Phantom and falls into a shark pool where he is Eaten Alive, causing the water to turn red from the blood and his clothes are shredded.
    • Quill gets inadvertently blasted into dust by Drax's skulls while fighting with the Phantom.
    • Drax is disintegrated in a fiery blast courtesy of the Phantom's ring which has the fourth skull.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Xander Drax has impeccable manners even when he's killing or maiming underlings in horrible ways, which really makes it worse.
  • Flynning: The sword fight scenes at the end of the movie are (painfully) full of this.
  • Foreshadowing: The prologue displays the three skulls of Touganda, and the fourth skull on the shaman's ring.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: The film is set in the thirties, with talk about the brewing war.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Quill has a scar on his cheek in the shape of the Phantom's skull ring, from where the previous Phantom punched him.
    • Quill's partner in the opening skull hunt gets a matching one from the current Phantom.
  • Gotta Catch Them All: The villain is tracking down the three "Skulls of Touganda", which will grant him immense power. There is a fourth skull, on the Phantom's Ring of Power.
  • Groin Attack:
    • One of Sala's favourite fighting moves.
    • Diana also does it to a Mook on the ship.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: After growing angry with the way the pirates were treating them both, including rape threats, Sala abruptly switches gears and starts helping Diana on the grounds that "us girls gotta stick together."
  • Hood Hopping: The Phantom does this while pursuing Drax's car in New York.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Kit's father admits he was a "lousy judge of character" when it came to his murderer Quill.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: The Phantom somehow manages to shoot swords out of opponents hands multiple times with two guns while not using sights and with his arms crossed.
  • In Medias Res: The film begins and ends smack in the middle of the 21st Phantom's career. Backstory is provided by dialogue and the movie ends with the romantic pair going their separate ways again (but with Diana planning to return later). Just a regular week for The Phantom.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Drax does this to Ray Zephro with an African spear when he "wants out."
  • In the Back: Quill stabbed the previous Phantom in the back, both literally and figuratively.
  • It's Personal: Said word-for-word by Diana when she punches out Sala.
  • It's Personal with the Dragon: The Phantom opposes Drax out of duty and principle, but Drax's enforcer Quill is the man who killed his father.
  • Jungle Drums: The Bangalla natives use message drums to summon the Phantom when trouble is brewing.
  • Legacy Immortality: Just like the comic, the current Phantom is really the son of the previous Phantom, and so on back to the original.
  • Large Ham: Treat Williams as Xander Drax.
    Drax: [elated] Unbelievable!!!
  • Laughably Evil: Much of Drax's characterization comes from the earlier, campier versions of the movie, making him this kind of villain compared to the rest of the cast (who, Zeta-Jones aside, were all trying to play it a little more straight-faced).
  • Leave Him to Me!: During the battle with the Sengh Brotherhood, their leader claims the right to be the one to kill the Phantom, and even stabs one of his own men who's about to beat him to it.
  • Leitmotif: David Newman composed the brass fanfare for the titular character and it is featured several times, most notably the opening fight with Quill and his men.
  • Marquee Alter Ego: In the comics, the Phantom's face is never shown clearly, even on the rare occasions when he is seen to take the mask off. This is not the case with Billy Zane's face in the movie.
  • Mood Whiplash: In his first conversation with his father, Kit tells him that he screwed up. His father comforts him, saying everyone makes mistakes. Then he reveals that he lost a Skull of Touganda to the Sengh Brotherhood. Suddenly his father passes him the Idiot Ball.
  • Mooks: The pirates are particularly bad. They've likely been doing this for decades and they are easily defeated in a sword fight by Sala and Diana, women who've likely never even picked up a sword before.
  • The Movie: The Phantom's live-action feature film debut.
  • Movie Superheroes Wear Black: Spectacularly averted! The Phantom's costume in the movie is even designed to "change color" depending on the lighting. It can shift from bright to dark purple, red, grey, or blue in a Shout-Out to how various publishers over the world change the color of his costume based of preference.
  • Murderous Thighs: A Rare Male Example. The Phantom does this to two Mooks in Drax's building.
  • Mystical Jade: The film features a Doomsday Device consisting of three mystic skulls: Gold, Silver, and Jade.
  • Nasal Trauma: Breen ends up breaking his nose when the Phantom rams him headfirst into a tree.
  • Nature Hero: The Phantom is really good with animals.
  • Not What I Signed on For: Ray Zephro decides that hunting for occult skulls is not what he signed on for. Drax doesn't take it well.
  • Not Listening to Me, Are You?: Diana talking to her mother.
    Lily Palmer: How are you anyway, sweetheart?
    Diana Palmer: I've contracted malaria, mother.
    Lily Palmer: That's nice.
  • Novelization: A very good, suitably pulpy one by Rob MacGregor, which contains loads and loads of Adaptation Expansion.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Quill when Styles gets strangled to death after the latter discovers the Silver Skull.
    • Quill, Morgan and Breen when they see the Phantom coming for them as they are escaping the jungle. Morgan even yells "Oh, shit!" when the Phantom disarms Breen's gun. Breen has another one seconds later when the Phantom rams him into a tree.
    • Quill and Morgan when they see the Phantom has pursued them to their truck.
    • The Phantom and Zak when they realize that the bridge is going to collapse.
    • Two of Quill's henchmen when they are captured by the Bengalla tribesmen.
    • Charlie right before getting blasted by the pirate cannon.
    • Kabai Sengh when he gets eaten alive by the sharks.
    • Quill when he is cornered by the Phantom and later when he gets disintegrated by the Skulls Drax is holding.
  • Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: The prior Phantom was murdered by Quill, who is easily young enough to be his son (Quill's age is never addressed, and Patrick McGoohan was twenty-five years older than James Remar).
  • Opening Narration: The prologue is narrated by Kit Walker's father about how their ancestor would become the titular Phantom:
    "It all began a very long time ago when a merchant ship was set upon by pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood. A small boy watched helplessly as his father was killed by the pirate leader, the evil Kabai Sengh. He jumped overboard and was washed ashore on a mysterious jungle island called Bengalla. It seemed like a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, but the Touganda tribesmen meant the boy no harm. They scooped him up and carried him to their village, and that night, in an ancient ceremony of fire and drums, the tribal shaman presented the boy wlth a ring of great significance. Then and there, the boy understood that he was destined to avenge his father's death by fighting piracy, greed and cruelty in all their forms. And when he grew to be a man, he became the Phantom."
  • Outside Ride: The Phantom does this on the villains' truck near the beginning, and later hitches a ride to the showdown on the landing pontoon of Sala's seaplane.
  • Over-the-Shoulder Carry: A restrained Diana Palmer gets this treatment from Sala when she is captured.
  • A Pirate 400 Years Too Late: The Sengh brotherhood has been around for over 400 years.
  • Pirate Girl: Sala.
  • Plummet Perspective: Used during the first crossing of the rope bridge.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Attempting to tie together three very different (albeit classic) storylines from the comics into a coherent whole and still trying to maintain the Kit Walker/Diana Palmer romance. The reason the film fails is because it collapses under its own ambition.
  • Purple Is Powerful: The Phantom wears purple.
  • Ring of Power: The Phantom's ring which has the fourth Skull of Touganda.
  • Rope Bridge: Which inevitably kicks off an action sequence when it starts coming apart as it's being crossed.
  • Schmuck Bait: "Oh, uh, one more thing if you don't mind. I'd like your professional opinion on something under this microscope."
  • Shirtless Scene: A nice long scene early on the Skull Cave with a buff and shirtless Billy Zane, under the pretext of his manservant treating a recent minor stab wound. The scene is long enough for him to have two separate conversations. After that, it's up to your imagination.
  • Shout-Out: The Palmer family's butler, Falkmoore, is named in honor of Lee Falk and Ray Moore, the writer and first artist of the comic strip.
  • Sky Pirate: Sala's crew.
  • Spirit Advisor: Kit's dad appears to him to goad him on his quest. A cabby driving the Phantom around is freaked out when Kit starts arguing with himself. He also doubles as a Character Narrator.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: When Kit and Diana find the jade Skull of Touganda at the Museum of World History, Diana suggests contacting an acquaintance of hers to have the skull retrieved. Kit however simply smashes the glass surrounding the skull and grabs it. To be fair, Drax was only seconds behind him, so her plan would have failed anyway.
  • Threatening Shark: There are sharks circling around the wreck that Kabai Sengh uses as his throne.
  • Thrown from the Zeppelin: When Ray Zephro voices his dissatisfaction with Drax's plans and tries to leave the room, he gets a spear thrown on his back.
  • Totally Radical: Thankfully averted in the film itself, but played very straight with the tag line: "SLAM EVIL!"
  • Too Dumb to Live: Drax stays fixated on wielding the skulls, even after hearing about a fourth skull more powerful than all three are and after displaying trouble controlling the skulls. When he hears about the Phantom's skull, a legitimate threat, he dismisses it as a cheap jungle trick, to his misfortune.
  • Two-Fisted Tales: They did get that right at least.
  • Unfinished Business: The ghost of the previous Phantom is still hanging around because of this. He doesn't mind having been murdered so much — it's an occupational hazard — but he can't rest easy until he knows that the Phantom line has been secured for another generation.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Quill was once saved by the 20th Phantom, after he was attacked by a rabid monkey. Quill said that he would lead him to the Sengh Brotherhood's hideout. Instead, he stabbed the Phantom in the back, stole his belt and took it to the Brotherhood, who initiated him.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Diana's unwanted admirer Jimmy Wells, whose idea of a business trip is coming into town to be measured for a new suit.
  • Vertical Kidnapping: The Phantom evades some pursuing mooks by riding through the Tree Top Town of the Rope People, who snare the mooks and dangle them high above the ground.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: One complaint about the film is that it assumes the audience already knows who The Phantom is and what he does. The introduction has a very condensed version of the origin story (taken almost directly from the first panel of many of the comics) but other than that it pretty much starts in the middle of the 21st Phantom's career with no backstory.
  • Villainous Gold Tooth: Morgan, one of the thieves assisting Big Bad Quill at the beginning, has a gold tooth.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Dark Action Girl Sala pauses her interrogation of Diana to admire Diana's leather boots and ask where she bought them so that Sala can buy some of her own.
  • Watch Out for That Tree!:
    • While chasing Quill and his men early on, the Phantom grabs Breen and rams him into a tree, breaking his nose.
    • When the Phantom and Diana are being pursued by Quill and his men, he jumps over a tree log. Seconds later, the car that Quill is on crashes into the tree and sends him and one of his mooks flying to the ground.
  • We Can Rule Together: Drax has two skulls and when he meets Captain Sengh, who owns the third skull, he proposes an alliance. Sengh isn't interested in world domination as being a pirate suits him fine, and because there is a fourth skull that masters the other three, he considers Drax's offer to be worthless.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Averted, if not inverted entirely. The Phantom only kills one main villain and indirectly kills another, while although he fights tons of Mooks, he always goes out of his way to take them out non-fatally.
    • Played straight with Drax. He throws a spear through his disloyal lieutenant and he's mostly concerned about the accidental damage to the wood paneling on the wall.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: Xander Drax.
    Drax: It begins and ends with an X.
  • Yellow Peril: Kabai Sengh and the Sengh Brotherhood. About half the modern members we see are white, though.
  • You Killed My Father: Quill is the man who killed the previous Phantom. He spends much of the movie disturbed by the discovery that the man he killed is apparently still in business. Kit explains the truth to him at the onset of their inevitable final duel.