Like no other film I can readily recall, The Shadow (1994) was as equally entertaining to me as a child on a childish level as it is for me as an adult on an adult level. This is not unfamiliar. Many child-oriented films, dole out small euphemistic zingers like scraps to very bored parents. However, The Shadow is two completely different films to the child and the adult. The tone you observe as a child is one of adventure and thrills, while the adult sees satire and allusions.
Take an example. In the first scene, the Shadow (Alec Baldwin) pulls out his two pistols and takes aim at a defenseless man (Sab Shimono) with concrete shoes. The child knows that the Shadow is going to shoot away the concrete, but the adult, more learned in the language of cinema, sees the upward angle and sadistic look in the Shadow’s eyes and thinks “This guy is going to kill him.” Then there is the copious amounts of overt sexual dialogue which was completely lost on me as a child. The obscenely leering Tim Curry and cheeky repartee with Penelope Ann Miller. It makes me wonder how I rationalized that dialogue at the time. I must have looked right past it and took in what, to my present mind, is rather light adventure.
Ying-Ko (Baldwin) controls a sizeable opium empire in Tibet circa the 1930s. He is ruthless and quite disgusting. After slaughtering a rival opium producer–call it a hostile takeover–Ying-Ko is kidnapped by a the Tulku (Brady Tsurutani), a holy man and master of the mental arts. The Tulku trains Ying-Ko and converts him to use the knowledge of the darkness in men’s hearts to defeat evil. Thus, in control of his inner darkness, Ying-Ko returns home, to New York City, resuming the use of his real name in the day, Lamont Cranston, and at night becoming the Shadow. Cranston assembles a vast network of spies and operatives that owe their lives to him in order to investigate wrong-doing in the city. His modus operandi is to beat up the wrong-doer and then psychologically terrorize them until they promise to turn themselves in. But very soon, the Shadow faces his greatest threat. Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last living descendant of Ghengis Khan and fellow disciple of the Tulku, comes to New York City to enact his plan for world domination!
Like The Shadow, Dick Tracy (1990) walks the line between earnestness and tongue-in-cheek inanity (all in the Depression-era milieu). It’s nostalgia and pastiche with a sense of humor. But Dick Tracy veers further into the inane side of that line while The Shadow tracks equally in the opposite direction. Dick Tracy is so completely absorbed by its comic style and atmosphere that there is no outer world to it, nothing outside of metaphors and archetypes. The Shadow has a little more to say, its stakes reflecting the reality of the time, while poking a little fun at its heroic clichés (“Khan, you know I’m gonna stop you”). The Shadow stays in the same limbo of those 30s and 40s detective movies, a one-liner always bubbling very close to the surface. Like a superhero version of The Thin Man (1934) with less verbal acuity and looser morals.
There is, obviously, that superhero aspect of the film that adds fun to the adventure. When you re-watch (or discover) The Shadow, you will probably be struck by the deafening echo in Christopher Nolan‘s Batman Begins (2005). A young wealthy man from the big city escapes his dark past to the Chinese steppe to engage in criminal activity but is given purpose by a mystical organization than teaches the mind-bending skills to bring order to society. Only, we don’t get a training montage in The Shadow is the difference. That’s slightly unfair because The Shadow is different in its sense of humor. That is, with writer David Koepp, it has one. The tone of the film is mostly light and cheery with its adventurous, heroic shadow to maintain the danger.
The Shadow is also a reminder of how Alec Baldwin used to be genuinely, unironically awesome. He was always funny and it’s that humor that probably saves The Shadow from being an exercise in silliness (like Dick Tracy). Where Warren Beatty‘s character lives and breathes in that zany world, Alec Baldwin’s Lamont Cranston is the only one who gets the joke. It’s a performance of smooth, oozing charm. And not a little mania.
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