Zack & Nick's Culture Cast

Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!

‘The Shadow’, Actually, Doesn’t Know

Over the weekend, I was looking for something to do and I noticed my Comcast had 1994’s The Shadow as a “Free Movie” option.  I figured since it was free, why not?  It is…not a very good movie.  Based on the classic pulp hero, The Shadow has a surprisingly strong cast in Alec Baldwin, Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen, and Tim Curry among others, and has a fairly impressive production crew including screenwriter David Koepp, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum.  However, despite the talent, this movie just fails at almost every turn.

the shadow

I think that a lot of the problem is that Russell Mulcahy does not know how to direct a movie.  In our upcoming Highlander podcast, I claim that Mulcahy, a former music video director, gets a lot of toys to play when making a feature film, but he does not know how to use any of them effectively.  That is totally at play here.  It is so apparent that Mulcahy is trying so hard to make this exactly like Tim Burton’s Batman that it just reeks of unfavorable comparisons (which is somewhat amusing considering that the creation of Batman is largely a riff on The Shadow to begin with).

Thing is, the tone, style, and mood that Mulcahy tries to bring to The Shadow could have worked.  Another problem with this movie is David Koepp’s script.  The story is just awkward, and the audience never gets a sense at what the villain actually wants.  Does he want money, world domination, or to see the NYC destroyed?  We are never certain because it keeps changing.

Not helping matters is that a good portion of the story (such as The Shadow’s origins) is breezed through.  It is never explained why The Shadow fights crime nor are we given any real insight into how he became The Shadow.  Normally, this would not be a problem.  I like the idea of “he simply is”, but the film makes a point to show his life as an opium dealer before he becomes a vigilante in an extremely brief five minute sequence at the beginning of the film.  It seems so tacked on and unnecessary.

Bringing a pulp character like this to the screen for modern audiences is a tricky thing.  You can really camp it up and make it a comedy (see: Adam West’s Batman), or you can play it incredibly straight (see: Warren Betty’s Dick Tracy).  Doing both is possible, but the tough part is finding that balance.  The Shadow tries to have it both ways and it does not work at all.  I generally like Alec Baldwin, and I appreciate his dry humor throughout this film, but the script (and subsequently the end product) was trying to do two things and succeeded at neither.

The Shadow was a flop at the box office in 1994.  It was utterly destroyed by competing fair such as The Lion King (released a week before) and Forrest Gump (released a week after).  It never really had a chance.  I suppose it is for the best.  There are some really interesting elements at play here (likely taken from the radio dramas) which could have made for a really fun movie.  Sadly, everything was squandered.  I am fully aware that there are eerie similarities between The Shadow and Batman Begins down to some very specific narrative beats.  If you want to watch a movie like this, skip The Shadow and throw on Batman Begins.



4 responses to “‘The Shadow’, Actually, Doesn’t Know

  1. CultureCast-Z February 20, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I remember this being kind of an enormous flop. I think it was an interesting failure that never really had a chance (see also: 1996’s The Phantom).

  2. JD February 21, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I actually just saw The Shadow for the first time the other day because it was free on at&t on demand. I think you really nailed it with this review.
    I really had no clue what the shadow could and couldn’t do for most of the movie and that lack of clarity was the biggest problem I had with the movie. Showing confusing and hokey title cards 15-20 minutes into the movie was really jarring. In movies like Star Wars and Blade Runner the title cards come up right away and give you an idea whats going on but you don’t need them to understand what’s going on. Telling part of the story with title cards makes it seem like they ran out of budget and were too cheap to show us the crucial part of the story where we learn the limits of the shadows powers and what drives him as a person. I agree that it would have been better to just get rid of the opening sequence if they aren’t going to show him training.

    Also, it’s just hard for me to take Alec Baldwin in a movie not intended to be a comedy. It felt like an hour and half sketch on 30 Rock more than a real movie. But with that said I would blame the director and writers before I would blame Alec Baldwin. I didn’t particularly hate the shadow. It wasn’t a good movie by any means but I agree that it’s better to just watch Batman Begins. Even from an awesomely bad movie perspective I would be hesitant to recommend the shadow.

    • Nick! February 21, 2013 at 12:42 pm

      That is a good observation about Baldwin not doing a comedy. While Baldwin is known primarily as a comic actor now thanks to ’30 Rock’, back in the early 90s he was far more versatile, with roles in such films as ‘Hunt for Red October’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, and ‘Prelude to a Kiss’. Him doing ‘The Shadow’ back then wouldn’t have seemed so out of place as if he did it today.

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