The Shadow (1994)

Toby Baldwin's Film Review Home

7 out of 10

The poor reception of this movie has always baffled me. Though imperfect, it is a great-looking, lighthearted adventure with first-rate production values and a solid cast. Rating: 7 out of 10.

The film begins by introducing us to Ying Ko (Alec Baldwin, The Hunt for Red October, State and Main), living as a druglord/ruthless dictator type in Tibet, presumably in the 1930s. After a scene that establishes his brutality, we see some intruders come and kidnap him from the bed where he is asleep with a woman...or two...okay, three. He is taken to the palace of the Tulku, an adolescent-looking boy with a stentorian voice, who knows how to cloud men's minds (think Jedi mind trick), and for some reason decides to teach Ying Ko to do the same. You see, the Tulku knows that Ying Ko is actually American Lamont Cranston, and that Cranston, despite his villainy, has a really nice guy inside just itching to burst out. Fortunately the Tulku's faith in Cranston is justified, and the once-butcher returns to what the opening narration calls "that most wretched lair of villainy" (Art Deco villainy, apparently) known as New York City.

Cranston uses his 'clouding' ability to create a psychic persona, his "Shadow," behind which to hide as he battles evil. When he goes into this persona, his blue eyes get blotted by black contacts, and he gets some makeup that leaves him pointy-nosed and bushy-eyebrowed. Oh yeah, he gets a hat and cape as well, and a red hanky over his mouth. Other times, and this is my favorite, we see him halfway between Shadow and Cranston--eyes black, voice made creepy by studio effects, and a shadow veiling his face.

I forgot to mention that Lamont Cranston is filthy rich, somehow or other. I assume he inherited the money from his parents, but I don't have any idea how they got it, or what happened to him, or what caused a rich war veteran to decide to become an opium magnate in Tibet...even as I write this, I realize the futility of analyzing an old comic book plot. So never mind--he's rich, and can thereby devote half his life to adventuring as the Shadow, and the other half to womanizing and spending money in swanky nightclubs.

Then the bad guy shows up. John Lone (The Last Emperor, Rush Hour 2) plays Shiwan Khan, the "last descendent of Genghis Khan." (Don't family trees tend to branch out? So wouldn't it be hard to be certain you were really the last? Especially after some seven or eight hundred years. Oh, darn...there I go thinking again.) He mails himself to the U.S. inside Genghis Khan's sarcophagus (sounds stuffy to me, but he wants to soak up all the bad juju) and sets out to, ahem, bring the world to its knees through a demonstration of his power; specifically, blowing up a chunk of New York City (probably seemed campier prior to 9/11/01). There's some mumbo-jumbo about the specific metals he uses to do this, but that doesn't make a lick of difference.

What does make a lick of difference is that the atomic bomb plan necessitates Khan's partnership with two scientists. The good one, Rheinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Apt Pupil), is kept in the dark as to the true nature of his work by his bad partner Farley Claymore (Tim Curry, Clue, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). More importantly, Lane has a hottie of an ESP-endowed daughter named Margo (Penelope Ann Miller, The Relic, Carlito's Way), whom Cranston meets in a nightclub and then tries to avoid because he's afraid her psychic ability will reveal his nasty past.

It's pretty much by the numbers after that; the bad guy causes lots of trouble, but you know Cranston, along with Margo and her father, will eventually win the day. The plot is somewhat predictable, clearly, but with a campy story like this that is just fine, provided the story is handled with wit, style, and great visuals, all of which are abundant here.

This may seem an unusual category to single out, but the lighting was wonderfully done. Long before special effects were anything to shout about, masters like Hitchcock were using shadows to wonderful effect, sometimes to the point that the darkness deserved billing in the cast list (see Suspicion). This movie doesn't rise to that level of eloquence or subtlety in its lighting, but with a name like The Shadow, they'd better have done a pretty good job with shadows, and they did. Several scenes show Cranston in the back of the cab driven by his sort-of-sidekick Moe Schrevnitz (Peter Boyle, countless movies including Malcolm X and While You Were Sleeping), and the darkness across his face gets the idea of his mood across perfectly--as opposed to his brightly-lit face while at dinner with his uncle, as he mugs and tries to be cute and chipper (he comes of more annoying, but I think that was intentional). The lighting is particularly stellar in the scenes in Dr. Lane's laboratory, which looks like something from a 1960s Spider-Man comic featuring the Mad Tinkerer.

That quality extends beyond just the lighting to all aspects of the visual production, as other reviewers have pointed out. Costumes, effects, set design--all are in keeping with a look appropriate to comic book published in the 1940s. There is one scene in particular that didn't look good to me, and that goes back to the lighting: the scene in a big water tank allegedly used by Claymore to test the bomb, which turns out to be a trap in which he tries to drown the Shadow. That scene looked silly, but in a manner more appropriate to the 1960s Batman TV show, not this darker film, which is equally campy but generally in a more stylish, even noirish way.

High marks also for the dream sequences, particularly the dream of Cranston's into which Margo gets pulled. These are creepy and cool, and the fire effects work well without going too far.

I liked the script. It contains a lot of cheesy one-liners, a surprising percentage of which work rather well. Many involve sexual innuendo a la James Bond. The lines delivered by small, doomed characters, such as the guard at the museum who first confronts Khan, the rude cab driver who gives him a lift, and the sailor who calls Khan 'Toots' are especially enjoyable. The dialogue is light and the whole thing has a hip, sure-handed tone about it.

Alec Baldwin is mostly great. In the Ying Ko identity, he makes a very good creepy guy ('playing himself,' perhaps?). The costume does pretty much everything when he's in full Shadow mode, but his bassy, menacing voice works well there. As Cranston, like I said, he seems cocky and his mugging wears thin, but that could be intentional. He is at his best when he is in between the two personas, an isolated, haunted man tortured by dreams of things he's done. Some reviews of this movie (not on Epinions) have complained that the movie keeps you at arm's length from the hero, but I felt there were powerful moments in which Baldwin let the humanity show through, and the entire endeavor is lifted beyond the silly trappings into a fairly compelling story.

Penelope Ann Miller is not someone I would usually picture in a sultry role (more of the goody-goody type, usually), but she knocks this one out of the park. Her best scene is when Margo tells Cranston a dream she's just had of being naked on a hot beach with the cool water washing over here, etc., etc.--and she is lying on a bed running her hands across her small white negligee as she tells it. This is the most overtly sexual moment of the film, and it works. Much of Miller's role is comedic, and her timing and delivery are solid.

John Lone has an intense stare that by itself just about makes the role of Khan, but I got tired of his emoting by the end of the movie, and with repeated viewings I like it less. Infinitely more true of Tim Curry, whose hamming it up I can barely stand to sit through now. They both do a good job of the over-the-top villain, but I'm sick of that archetype, so perhaps I can't judge it fairly.

There are many nice smaller performances here, including Sab Shimono (Midway) as Dr. Roy Tam. Uncle Wainwright (Jonathan Winters, "Hee Haw" TV series) wasn't given much to do but harrumph through his curmudgeonly part, but he has an expressive (and enormous) face.

From the opening moments, the score is clearly one of the strongest areas for this movie. The creepy, almost horror-sounding score works well with the overall dark look of the film, but does not seem intrusive or pretentious. Excellent.

There are some good actions scenes. The flashbacks to Cranston as Ying Ko cutting down villagers are the only real reminder to me that director Russell Mulcahy also helmed the first two Highlander films, the first of which was exciting in its day but has not held up well over time. Most of the action is slicker and less raw in nature. There is a clear visual tip of the hat to Enter the Dragon in the final showdown when the Shadow chases Kahn through a maze of mirrors. The way the Shadow solves that one is one of the most thrilling moments in the film, and the scene in general gives the desired payoff.

On the other hand, aside from the water tank scene I already pooh-poohed, the low point was the bomb-about-to-go-off thing that is interspersed with the far-superior final showdown scene I described in the paragraph above. The sight of Dr. Lane and Margo running away from the bomb, which looks like a big marble rolling down the halls, is a real groaner, and leads up to the inevitable green-or-red-wire cliche. Pretty stupid.

Well, that's probably more than enough words to simply say that this a fun, witty, great-looking film that, despite not holding up to serious plot scrutiny, isn't meant to, but stands as one of the best comic book adaptations in terms of retaining the tone and visual style. The results are somewhat less serious than what I hope for from Spider-Man, but Spidey's appeal has always been the human struggles behind the superhuman power; the Shadow comics were a full generation earlier, and although perhaps not as deep in terms of characterization, had an undeniable style of their own. This movie, in my view, goes for that style and nails it. Enjoy!

Worth renting? I think so, for most people.
Worth buying? Probably for fans of the genre.
Suitable for kids? Probably okay for older kids.
Year: 1994
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Running time: 108 minutes
Rating: PG-13, probably for moderate violence, language, and innuendo

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Review copyright 2003 by Toby Baldwin

Originally written August 28, 2001

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