Alec Baldwin suits up as The Shadow in his first and only foray into the superhero genre. Based on the creation by Walter B. Gibson, The Shadow started life on the radio as part of the Detective Story Hour back in 1930 voiced by Orson Welles.
Before Highlander director Russell Mulcahy’s glossy 90s version, the last time The Shadow had been adapted was back in the 40s with Victor Jory starring as Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow). A low-budget sequel without Jory arrived in 1946, and a TV pilot was retooled as the Invisible Avenger in 1958 with Richard Derr in the leading role. So The Shadow was ripe for a 90s reboot hoping to cash in on some of that Batman money. After all, The Shadow was a major influence on Bob Kane & Bill Finger’s Caped Crusader.
The 90s were an odd time for movies based on comic book superheroes. Tim Burton’s Batman hit cinemas in 1989, but Hollywood still didn’t really know what to do with comic book movies. A forgettable Captain America, two neon-bathed Batman sequels, Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire, Shaquille O’Neal in Steel, and The Phantom, were just some of the misfires we wish we could forget. The 90s wasn’t totally void of good movies based on comic books, the sorely underrated Rocketeer, Blade, and The Shadow were met with varying degrees of success, but over twenty years later they still hold up.
Alec Baldwin gives a great audition for Bruce Wayne as the morally tortured Lamont Cranston. For reasons never fully explained, Cranston turned his back on his playboy lifestyle to pursue his darker instincts. Which obviously means set up shop as ruthless warlord and opium kingpin in Tibet named Yin-Ko (that’s right he has three names). You were half-assing it with all that League of Shadows training Bruce Wayne from Batman Begins.
A chance encounter with mystic-man Tulku, and Cranston/Yin-Ko is ready to learn all there is to know about how to harness his dark heart and be a force for good. Seven years later, and Cranston is applying the teachings from his master as a mask crime fighter The Shadow (who looks a lot like William Baldwin). Unlike most modern-day superheroes, The Shadow uses guns, isn’t afraid to kill a bad guy that deserves it, and laughs like a full-blown maniac. This is the good guy, right?
It’s a gutsy move to introduce the hero of the film as an evil dictator who loves a good battle and slaughtering the innocent. Usually, the hero has a trauma that’s out of their control in their past that triggers their desire to be an instrument of justice. Cranston pillaged towns, murdered families, and far far worse. Thanks in no small part to Baldwin’s charisma, you’re quite happy to just go along with it regardless.
After dispensing with a batch of crooks, Cranston pops along to a fancy club to have dinner and is immediately infatuated with the glamorous Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller). Unbeknown to Cranston, she’s also the daughter of Dr Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen) who is building a top-secret device for the Department of War. Mckellen has a blast playing the mad scientist with a heart of gold, but he’s gloriously upstaged by a scene-stealing Tim Curry as his scheming assistant. However, there’s more to Margo than meets the eye as she possesses telepathic abilities that fascinate Cranston.
The arrival of another student of Tulku brings chaos in its wake when Shiwan Khan (John Lone) sets his sights on conquering the world. At times, it feels as though essential scenes are missing between Margo and Cranston. Their romance is hurried and underdeveloped; perhaps there are deleted scenes somewhere in existence that flesh out their relationship. Thankfully, Baldwin and Miller have chemistry to spare which helps pave over any gaps.
Visually, The Shadow is a feast for the eyes with sublime set pieces, and cinematography from Stephen H. Burum (Mission Impossible, Mystery Men). It may unintentionally echo Warren Betty’s misfire Dick Tracy, but The Shadow’s world looks like it has leapt out of the comic book page. Perfect viewing for a rainy Sunday afternoon in August. Stay tuned through the credits for the powerful Original Sin theme music performed by Taylor Dayne.