It’s doubtful many moviegoers under 50 will have much of an idea who the Shadow is. And after sitting through The Shadow, they still won’t: The movie has all the coherence of a bad acid flashback. In the insane prologue, we see Alec Baldwin as Ying Ko, infamous Chinese warlord, who is taken captive and forced to do battle with a flying dagger, its tiny golden head laughing nastily at him. That dagger is a nifty special effect, but our main reaction to the sequence is to note that even under a terrible hippie wig Alec Baldwin doesn’t look remotely Chinese.
Cut to New York City in the swank ’20s. Baldwin is now Lamont Cranston, tuxedo-clad playboy, who slips in and out of his tormented alter ego, the Shadow. As the Shadow, Baldwin sports a fedora and black cape, a Silly Putty makeup job, and a bandanna that covers the lower half of his face; he looks like Margaret Hamilton playing Zorro. And what, exactly, does the Shadow do? Well, he laughs like Count Chocula and materializes out of the ether to ”cloud men’s minds” (whatever that means). The Shadow is a dismal, cheezoid mess, a movie that tries to turn the old radio serial into a cross between Batman and Raiders of the Lost Ark and, instead, vaporizes it into a glittery trash pile, an Art Deco Super Mario Bros.
Baldwin, a good actor who needs to start playing characters with an edge, looks puffy and smug in this cockeyed-hero role. Like Batman, the Shadow is meant to be a good guy with a touch of evil, but Baldwin just acts like James Bond’s smart-ass brother. As the villain, a descendant of Genghis Khan’s who threatens to blow up Manhattan with the newly invented atom bomb, John Lone looks miserable; he’s too restrained an actor to ham up this evil-Asian relic. The trouble with setting a special-effects fantasy in the low-tech ’20s is that unless the American-kitsch elements are injected with something approaching Steven Spielberg’s speedy bravado, we become all too aware that the actors are simply standing around B-movie sets spouting cardboard dialogue. The Shadow, like 1991’s The Rocketeer, tries to pass off its retro thinness as a quasi joke, but it’s a desperate strategy. The filmmakers seem to be kidding everyone — the audience and themselves — and that just leaves us waiting for this particular flashback to fizzle away. D