“He didn’t like the old suit either?” “Are you kidding? He loathed the old suit, he felt it was too, er, theatrical.” -Kit Walker and Dr. Deepak Baboor
Those words practically sum up the atttitude that this Syfy Channel miniseries took towards the original Phantom, hailed as the prototype for skintight costumed superheroes.
As a teenager, I watched the 1996 movie version of The Phantom starring Billy Zane. It was fun, a little goofy, largely irreverent and most of all, it wasn’t afraid to stay relatively true to the original vision of creator Lee Falk in 1936 – even to the point of borrowing plots from his comic strip. They were able to do this by retaining pulp fiction atmosphere of the the 1930s. This television movie, on the other hand, tries to bring it into the modern world and therefore injects some ‘realism’ into it.
The result is a big: FAIL.
I really wanted to like this TV movie. Firstly, The Phantom is a classic hero, and the story of passing the mantle from father to son is something that resonates a lot with me. Secondly, it was written and conceived by father-son team Daniel and Charles Knauf, creators of the short-lived series Carnivàle, who also wrote some of the most compelling post-Extremis Iron Man stories. Lastly, it had Sandrine Holt among the main cast, and I’ve always had a thing for the statuesque Chinese-French actress.
So after the first part of the telemovie ended, I found myself truly wondering if I even cared enough to want to watch the rest of it. Director Paolo Barzman, who directed some of my favourite episodes of Highlander, Queen of Swords and Relic Hunter, failed to maintain the pace of the first ninety minutes, resulting in a draggy, unnecessarily convoluted mix of awkward romance, unbelievable dramatic moments and absolutely laughable villainy. Yes, you read it right. The Knaufs had probably planned the first half to be solely origin backstory, without a single view of the titular superhero in costume.
Now, this would not have been so bad if the characters themselves were engaging and easy to relate to, but despite his boyish charms, lead actor Ryan Carnes simply could not garner any emotional connection as the hero of the story, Kit Walker aka The Phantom. Whether it be with his love interest, Renny (Cameron Goodman) or his mentor Abel Vandermaark (Jean Marchand) or even his parents, Kit Walker seems to be devoid of any chemistry to most of the main characters. Ironic, perhaps, because Ryan Carnes has been simply marvelous as Justin, the partner of Andrew Van De Kamp (Shawn Pyfrom) on Desperate Housewives.
The Phantom also suffered from not having a truly believable villain. The Singh Brotherhood, the archenemies of each generation of Kit Walker, turned out to be a farcical organisation headed by a flamboyant, certifiably insane fool named Rhatib Singh (Cas Anvar). For most of the story, we were forced to indulge this madman as he conjured up some extremely nonsense scheme involving mind control and political assassinations. This is particularly depressing because the Knaufs have written some extremely compelling thrillers in the pages of Iron Man, also involving political assassination. One can only hope that there was some miscommunication from script to screen, resulting in this unexplainable mess.
Perhaps the show’s only saving graces were Sandrine Holt and Jean Marchand. Holt, looking twenty years younger than she is, plays Guran, the behind-the-scenes assistant to The Phantom, with an astounding level of dignity and poise. She’s automatically believable as someone who is intelligent and trustworthy, discreet and efficient – the perfect associate for the crime fighter. Unfortunately, Holt’s 1.78m height and lanky frame made all her co-stars, Carnes included, look like dwarves around her, an unexpected effect which distracted me constantly.
Jean Marchand, on the other hand brought such a cold countenance to his character of Abel Vandermaark that I automatically wished that he was the villain of the piece because he was such an excellent foil to the supposedly passionate youth of Kit Walker. Nonetheless, as the mentor figure who reveals Walker’s destiny as The Phantom, Marchand is spot on in his delivery and immediately made me search Wikipedia and IMDb for his other works. Unfortunately, it seems he has been prolific in Canadian French productions, but very few English ones.
Of special note, perhaps, was casting Isabella Rossellini as one of the villains. The extremely experienced Italian-Swedish actress put up a horribly overacted performance that she tends to do for these fantastical shows, such as the 1998 Merlin television movie opposite Sam Neil. In deference to her, I’ll spare her any further comment.
The irony, of course, is that SyFy updating of The Phantom was intended to bring realism into the mythos. Instead, it suffered from a weak, hardly plausible plot, overacting, poor chemistry between the stars, and a pace that threatened to lose the audience after the first 90 minutes. Barzman’s familiarity with action sequences only came into play in the second part, but by that time, it was nigh impossible for anyone, even The Phantom, to rescue this failure.