Between 1990 and 1996, Hollywood released four feature-length homages to the classic Saturday matinee / pulp serial. Set in the 1930s, they are eminently watchable, nostalgic throwbacks made to cash in on the Indiana Jones craze and the resurgence of the comic book movie ushered in by Tim Burton’s Batman. However, only one of these four was a hit (Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy), and by the time the last one appeared (The Phantom), the fad for this kind of movie had died. The Phantom, The Rocketeer, The Shadow—each one was supposed to kick-start a franchise. All of them, sadly, “died a death,” but they endure on DVD and Blu-ray as cult favorites. Here are some notes of comparison:
The Rocketeer and The Shadow get off to a great start, but from there they take a while to get going. The Phantom, while it scores lowest of the four in terms of box-office receipts, cachet and casting, has the most drive and the best action sequences.
Billy Zane’s Phantom is bland. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy is too old to be convincing. (Still, they don’t undermine my enjoyment the way Tobey Maguire does in the Spider-man films.) Alec Baldwin adds the right amount of ham to The Shadow‘s cheese. He gives the role a dark, debonair quality. Billy Campbell’s Rocketeer is cute as a button.
Winner: The Rocketeer ties The Shadow.
The Rocketeer is the lightest of the bunch, and like The Phantom it is a bit of an underdog (Disney Pictures banked for the most part on a cast and crew of lesser-knowns). It is the family-friendliest title here—the tone is one of unsullied innocence. The other three films are darker by varying degrees.
The Rogues’ Gallery
True to the spirit of the serial and the B movie as a whole, the rogues’ gallery in each movie comprises a veritable who’s-who of top-tier character actors.
Winner: It’s a total draw.
Of the dames on display, Dick Tracy‘s Madonna is the weakest. Her acting leaves a lot to be desired. Penelope Ann-Miller (The Shadow) stuns and Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer) is positively ripe.
Winner: Easy. The Rocketeer.
The Hero’s Outfit
By virtue of its dark simplicity, the Shadow’s outfit is the coolest. He looks like the Invisible Man minus the bandages and shades. (I dig the hook nose, too. It’s an odd detail that, despite its fidelity to the original artwork of the novels, is never explained.) The Phantom’s purple leotard is fun but lame. Dick Tracy’s yellow trenchcoat marks him as a bright symbol of law and order. The Rocketeer’s aviator garb, which includes a boxy helmet, is functional and simple—yet I don’t understand how the rocket never burns his ass to cinders.
Winner: The Shadow.
Visually the films are pop tarts, staged and shot with tender loving care. The production designers of The Shadow and The Phantom really outdo themselves: The Phantom‘s caves are neat; The Shadow‘s New York City is an art-deco diamond. In both films, the level of detail catches the eye and sets the imagination racing. The Rocketeer is less flashy, but three of its sets made me smile: the Frank Lloyd Wright-style house that belongs to Timothy Dalton’s villain, the South Seas Club, and the Bulldog Cafe.
Story; or, the Hero’s Quest
The Rocketeer is an aw-shucks kind of kid. If you believe that a compelling pulp hero should be drawn with light and shade (i.e., he’s a do-gooder with a prominent dark side or appearance), the Rocketeer is the least interesting of the lot. But, though I admire screenwriters David Koepp (The Shadow) and Jeffrey Boam (The Phantom), they don’t craft stories here that feel, well, vital. That is, the stories don’t absolutely need to happen to the heroes the way they do. Armed with the power to cloud men’s minds, the Shadow combats evil because it is a life he was forced into (for reasons that never make much sense). The Phantom has good reason to prevent the evil Drax from finding magic skulls, but (spoiler alert—and I may be giving the plot short shrift here) the Phantom also has good reason to know he will emerge victorious in the end. Since the Rocketeer is not a superhero with his own lair, much less a secret team of agents at his beck and call, he faces greater odds. His story, while of an outlandish sort (how could it be otherwise?), is therefore the strongest of the four films.
Winner: The Rocketeer.
Dick Tracy’s two-way wristwatch/radio is cool, as are the pneumatic tubes that course through New York at the Shadow’s behest. Still, Batman weeps, because the Phantom lives like a king in the caves and crevices of a frickin’ island. The Rocketeer‘s jetpack trumps all, because it is integral to his story. And it looks cool.
Winner: The Rocketeer.
A dashing Howard Hughes type, Treat Williams (the tycoon Drax, The Phantom) is a boast and a creep. Moreover, he’s camp, a trait he seems to relish. Al Pacino (the mobster Big Boy Caprice, Dick Tracy) goes over the top, too, but the prosthetic makeup overwhelms him. He might as well be doing voice-over for a joyless puppet (never mind that he is probably the best thing in Dick Tracy, Vittorio Storaro’s lighting notwithstanding). As the descendant of Genghis Khan, John Lone (The Shadow) does moderately well with an underdeveloped role. The character never oozes much of a threat. Finally, Timothy Dalton (movie star Neville Sinclair in The Rocketeer) is the slimiest of the four villains. He’s perfectly cast and, without succumbing to archness, he has fun with a semi-surprising role.
Winner: The Phantom ties The Rocketeer.
John Williams may be a god among film composers, but his scores often feel busy, intrusive—shrill. His scores for the Indiana Jones films are no exception. Fortunately, none of the other movies I’m talking about fall into that trap. Dick Tracy‘s score has the most going for it (orchestral Danny Elfman shares the spotlight with Stephen Sondheim tunes). The Shadow stumbles, albeit briefly, when Kenny G-style muzak plays under the scene where Baldwin and Penelope Ann-Miller first meet. (Anachronism, no!) Those distinctions aside, the scores for all four films are altogether decent.
Zingers (a Sampling)
Dick Tracy: “Around me, if a woman don’t wear mink, she don’t wear nuttin’.” “Well, I look good both ways.”
The Rocketeer: “How do I look?” “Like a hood ornament.”
The Phantom: “Fine, go ahead. It’s your rescue.”
The Shadow: “Psychically, I’m very well endowed.” “I bet you are.”
Winner: The Shadow.
Inspired as many of the elements in these films are, their overall pull depends greatly on whether you pine for a reimagining of the Saturday matinee serial that feels less ironic and/or self-knowing and/or adrenalized than the Indiana Jones quartet does. (Combined, the Indy Jones movies remain the standard-bearer for the sort of film under discussion.) If you do, The Rocketeer is the prize pick. If you don’t, and you don’t mind the old-fashioned trappings that remain (particularly the, uh, ethnic cliches that are unavoidable for this kind of storytelling), you might like The Phantom best. Dick Tracy stars an annoying child actor, so I ding it a few notches.
Winner: It’s your call, friend, but Dick Tracy is clearly the runt of the litter.
1. The Rocketeer
2. The Shadow
3. The Phantom
4. Dick Tracy