Retro movie review – Who Knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The 1994 Shadow movie does…

I decided, on a lark, to rewatch the 1994 The Shadow movie, starring (Emmy winner) Alec Baldwin, to see if the years since had been kind. When it came out I was (gulp) 15 and it was the third of the superhero movies that followed in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman (Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer proceeded it). And, boy howdy, did Burton’s Batman influence this movie.

You have the “dark hero” at the heart of the film, Lamont Cranston, who had fallen to the Dark Side after WW I and became a poppy dealer in Tibet. You had the production design that was “reminiscent” of Anton Furst’ design for Burton’s movie. Finally, you had the Kim Basinger-inspired casting of the lead (Kim, as you know, was in Batman, and she was Alec’s wife at the time). Alec was recommended by Kim to the producer and thus, history was made…

And Alec’s rising star dimmed quite a bit when this movie came out, because the movie bombed.

Watching it now, I can see why. Alec in the movie, as an actor and as a screen presence, was fine; he is quite good in the movie… but he’s playing, literally, a shadow. The screenplay, by David Koepp, gives the audience absolutely no opportunity to empathize or like the character – he starts as an unsympathetic character, and then becomes a “good guy.” How do we learn that, and that he redeems himself? We never see it, we are instead told that through a scrolling text screen ten minutes into the movie. There’s a term that comes to mind when it comes to this… it’s called “lazy screenwriting.”

If you look at Koepp’s writing credits, you can see after this he did get better… somewhat.

As cool as the Shadow is in the movie (and he is cool – two action sequences around the character are definitely exciting), we as viewers are given no opportunity to “grow” with the character as he becomes this cool superhero. It’s as if they made Batman Begins and then cut out all the cool stuff in Tibet, where he trains and becomes the character we sympathize with… Oh, wait. Never mind.

As a movie it’s not bad, but more average than anything else… though I have to admire the acting talent on display. You got Baldwin, Tim Curry (fanboys who wanted to see him as the Joker can point to this movie as the closest we ever got), Ian McKellan as an absent-minded professor, Jonathan Winters (!), James Hong, Peter Boyle and Tim Curry… that’s a strong cast there. I also noted, with some amusement, two actors in minor roles that went on to better things: Ethan Phillips (Star Trek Voyager’s Neelix) is a security guard, and Patrick Fischler (who did great work this year on both LOST as Phil and on Mad Men as Jimmy Barrett) as an ill-fated sailor.

Special note must be given to Jerry Goldsmith’s great score for the movie, which elevates the material, as all good scores do.

I remember being a huge fan of the Shadow character before this movie came out, having consumed many hours of Orson Welles’ radio show and several of the pulp novels. Then the movie came out, and as much as I wanted to like it, my reaction, as it still is, was “meh.” It also affected my interest in the original material, and my young self never went back.

Sad, but even sadder was that this is probably the best Shadow movie we’ll ever get… though, with Hollywood’s penchant for recycling, never say never.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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