A long time ago, a young boy was on a ship with his father when they were attacked by pirates. The father was killed and the boy escaped overboard to be washed up on the shore of a remote land and was adopted by the tribe there who taught him the secrets of the Ancients. Now, in 1938, a group of explorers are investigating that land in the search for a precious ornamental skull as ordered by their boss, rich industrialist Xander Drax (Treat Williams). They find the way tough going, and nearly lose their lives venturing over a rickety bridge, but do find a lost temple and the skull within. Only now they must face the wrath of The Ghost Who Walks: aka The Phantom (Billy Zane)...
Before comic book movies became really big business in the twenty-first century, there were a few not so certain steps towards making the genre a regular hit in the nineties, and The Phantom was one of those, becoming every bit as popular as The Shadow and The Rocketeer in the process, i.e., hardly anybody went to see it. There was perhaps a feeling with these properties that they were a little old hat with their period settings and heroes that few outside their true fans (in Australia, it seems in this case) would ever have recalled, and the fact that Billy Zane was dressed up in a skintight purple suit didn't do much for his credibility. The conclusion was that this was another flop attempt to start a franchise, so Batman this was decidedly not.
And yet, there were those who understood what the filmmakers were trying here, as much a return to the derring-do of Indiana Jones as it was a hark back to the serial adventures that they were indebted to with its jungle setting, ancient artefacts of incredible power and ever so slightly spoofy tone that contrasted with seriousness they took their dedication to providing genuine thrills. Fair enough, those thrills were difficult to take seriously on that level, but The Phantom was a decent enough try even if it was not as successful as it would have liked to be. Bruce Campbell was the original choice for the role, but Zane was a similar kind of talent, cartoonishly handsome and with an air of self-mockery.
Which makes you wonder why they simply didn't stick with Bruce, but Billy it was, and he finds the right tone to pitch his performance, although he could have done with some more self-aware dialogue and quips (he does say at one point he never kids, but maybe he could have given it a go for the sake of the film). The Phantom lives in his jungle lair with only a horse, a wolf and a henchman for company, but he's ready to spring into action should the need arise, and the theft of the silver skull of something-or-other is one of those times. As it turns out, Drax's main lackey (James Remar) does get away with the object and takes it to pre-Second World War New York City, lovingly recreated here with as much care as The Shadow had.
Not that audiences of the day had much interest in period detail, and you can understand why this would have been considered strictly second division, with its cast of recognisable faces but not exactly megastar wattage and slavish commitment to conjuring up yesteryear's excitement. Kristy Swanson takes the love interest role as adventuress Diana Palmer, who our hero takes a shine to but his motives are put into question when it's made clear he really needs an heir to continue the Phantom line. Well, he seems sincere enough about liking her. Williams plays it suave as the baddie, backed up by Catherine Zeta-Jones as his pilot and bodyguard who has a change of sides when Diana troubles her conscience, and for true oddity, Patrick McGoohan shows up to appear as The Phantom's Dad (that's the way he's credited), a ghostly presence who narrates and only his son can see. It's not going to take a place in the pantheon of classic superhero movies, but you can see what they were aiming for and it's harmless, good-natured entertainment. Music by David Newman.
Australian director who began working in TV in his homeland. Directed the horror flick Snapshot, before heading to Hollywood scoring a hit with the sci-fi adventure D.A.R.Y.L. Wincer had success on the small screen with the award-winning western Lonesome Dove and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and on the big screen directed the likes of Free Willy, Quigley Down Under and The Phantom.