'The Shadow': Collector's Edition
As Alec Baldwin retires from fame, it’s worth remembering that 20 years ago Hollywood thought he was A-list material. And why not? One of the most meta moments on “30 Rock” found Baldwin’s Jack Donagy shocking Liz Lemon with a photo of his younger, thinner, more ripped and hairy self. The mock-suaveness that Baldwin oozed for seven seasons he used to ooze for real. Execs found him suitably hot enough to place front and center in a summer tentpole series, namely 1994’s “The Shadow,” a take on the 1930s superhero of pulp novels and radio, where he was voiced by Orson Welles.
Released in the wake of “Lion King” fever, “The Shadow” failed to find a foothold, joining “The Rocketeer” and “The Phantom” as casualties of a time when Hollywood assumed the new thing was resurrected 1930s entertainments. It’s always interesting, even fun, watching wouldbe-blockbusters from the distant past, and Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray issue of “The Shadow” shows that moviegoers of 1994 might not have trounced on a neglected masterpiece, but one that has more than enough charm.
Baldwin plays Lamont Cranston, a villain forcibly reformed, by magic, into a do-gooder with the power of invisibility. Like Bruce Wayne, he poses as a vacuous playboy in 1930s Manhattan; by night he takes down crime, enlisting those he saves into his network of aids. The film, written by the overly-prolific David Koepp (hot off “Jurassic Park”), bangs out the origin story in eight minutes, then gives him no less than a revived ancestor of Genghis Khan, played by “The Last Emperor”’s John Lone, to battle. (Also on hand are Ian McKellen and Tim Curry. If they had more screentime together, they'd be a more enjoyable pair than even McKellen and Patrick Stewart.)
Even with such a formidable baddie and the usual fate of the world at stake, “The Shadow” is pretty low stakes, which is to say it’s diverting but instantly forgettable. Koepp gives his hero a violent backstory and a villain who mirrors his dark side, but the themes remain theoretical rather than visceral. Baldwin doesn't feel compelled to give his character any humanity. He's too busy being delightfully arch, especially when busting out his patented husky voice while taunting bad guys. But he doesn’t let anyone in, including Penelope Ann Miller’s hotcha socialite. If “The Shadow” was a comic, it’d be blast, as there’s always more story to come; as an expensive movie, it’s in and out of your mind much too quickly.
Then again, it has a lot of character. It delights in recreating the 1930s, with its Art Deco buildings and swanky wear. Director Russell Mulcahy (of “Highlander” fame) makes each frame look like a comic book panel, and keeps things light and witty. He bangs out a crazy long take that follows a canister riding through a pneumatic tube, and he has the gallows humor to start one shot following a schlub falling off the Empire State Building then pan down to show Baldwin and Miller walking down the street, oblivious of the death in the background. “The Shadow” is no great shakes, but with age it is good shakes.
‘The Visitor’ Dug up from under a boulder and released into a time when it still makes little sense, this 1979 Italian whatzit finds John Huston as an alien trying to stop an avian-related apocalypse with help from Jesus (Franco Nero). If that weren’t weird enough, it features director Sam Peckinpah as a friendly abortionist, plus future far right windbag Neal Boortz in one of his two few acting roles.
‘The Grandmaster’ We desperately want to recommend Wong Kar-wai’s typically gorgeous film of martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung). But the only edition available in the U.S. is the one chopped up by Harvey Weinstein, who felt Wong’s original was too sad and Wong-esque. It’s still a beaut.
’12 Years a Slave’ Good timing! The Best Picture winner hits shelves just in time for you to wonder how on earth it only won three Oscars.
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Note the word "catching": Just as this YA sequel really gets going, it stops dead in its tracks, ready to be picked up by film number three. See you later this year!
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