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Review: SyFys "The Phantom" TV Show

I put The Phantom, the new mini-series from RHI Entertainment, set to air on SyFy in June, into the Blu Ray-player with a strange feeling of both being excited and having rather low expectations, thinking that what I was going to see would probably not be my cup of tea. I took the disc out with very, very high expectations, excited about the possibility of this turning into a regular series. I have rarely been so wrong before, because amazingly, the company that ruined Flash Gordon and butchered the iconic Phantom costume in the Worst Concept Art in the History of Mankind (which they thankfully ditched after overwhelmingly negative online-reaction), have given us a pretty good Phantom series.

Let me stress this: many fans of the character are going to be deeply disappointed by this show (maybe even more so after reading a primarily positive review like this one). This is NOT the Phantom we all know and love, at least not on the surface. This is a VERY modern take on the Ghost Who Walks, one that adds elements of science fiction rarely seen in the comic, which features a heavily modified Phantom costume, and, most importantly, tells the story of an all new Phantom.

When reading SyFy’s initial announcement of the project, I thought the plot sounded like it was inspired too much by that of Phantom 2040, an average, flawed series that, despite some great ideas, ultimately has ended up boring me out of my skull every time I’ve tried to watch it. While there are similarities (young man discovers he is actually the heir to the Phantom legacy, learns to accept his destiny, and uses state of the art technology to kick the crap out of evildoers), I am happy to say that SyFy’s Phantom is entertaining almost from beginning to end.

If you still expect this show to be completely faithful to the comic, you are either very naive or you have been living under a rock since it was announced. As we all know, Kit Walker, the boy who will grow up to become the 22nd Phantom, was born in the Skull Cave, has a twin sister named Heloise, and knows everything about his father’s ”occupation”. This Kit Walker, however, was born in Switzerland, and has no sister (that we know of, maybe they’re saving Heloise for a potential regular series? The writers have named the ship of the 1st Phantom Maria Heloise, which means they are aware of her existence after all). Due to some form of amnesia, the closest he has to memories of his real parents are the recurring appearances in his nightmares of a woman with a gun, Diana Palmer-Walker, and the awe-inspiring shape of a mysterious, awe-inspiring man, his father, the Phantom. Will Kit rise to the challenge of fulfilling his destiny? You know the answer, because as one of the characters says,”He is a Walker”.

Ryan Carnes does a fine job as the 22nd Phantom. I was vocally skeptical about his casting, since, let’s face it, he looks very boyish compared to how the Phantom has looked in every previous incarnation. Mr. Carnes proves that I was wrong to doubt him, by doing a solid job with what is a pretty intricate and confused character. This Kit Walker is a likeable lead who by the course of the series develops a pretty strong moral code, but he is slightly more insecure than previous Phantoms, a typical American student thrown into extraordinary circumstances without being sure if he really wants to. It feels pointless to compare Carnes to previous Phantoms Tom Tyler and Billy Zane, since he is after all playing an entirely different character, but he (or his stuntmen?) has Tyler’s skills in fight scenes and some of Zane’s natural charm (he also has a very deep “Phantom voice” that is almost as good as that of his terrific predecessor). He looks pretty good in the new Phantom costume (as soon as he puts it on he looks a good ten years older, which is a good thing), imposing and physically impressive. In short, Mr. Carnes has won me over, and I will be disappointed if he does not get to wear the Skull Ring again in new episodes.

Speaking of the new Phantom costume, I can live with it. Let’s just say it looks much, much better when seen on screen than on still photos (somebody at SyFy deserves trouble for releasing the worst possible pictures of it). Surprisingly, I can still recognize this as the Ghost Who Walks when I see Carnes wearing the uniform, which is impossible in the photos. The hood (or rather the helmet, because that’s what it actually is!) is very far from perfect, but still looks much sleeker than it did in stills, where it looked so big that one wondered if the Phantom hid a water melon inside it.

The first time Kit shows himself as the Phantom to Renny, there is this awesome shot of Carnes just standing there, where he looks very much like the Phantom we know and love. All the elements of the old costume are still there, the mask, the hood, the belt, the rings, the boots, some of them are just designed differently than we are used to (hopefully that can be changed later down the road if ratings merit new episodes). However, SyFy feels the need to diss the original outfit on one occasion, having one of the characters saying that the 21st Phantom ”loathed” his costume because it was so theatrical, which I found completely unnecessary and annoying.

The new uniform can resist bullets, knives, and other forms of damage, and it doubles the Phantom’s strength. While I prefer the low-tech approach of previous Phantoms, it kind of makes sense that Kit would use such a costume, since he is just a regular guy who never received training in the jungle, and also because Carnes is not as physically impressive as Tyler or Zane. The outfit sadly means that this Phantom does not bother with lurking around in the shadows taking out bad guys one by one; instead he wades right in and starts fighting. It works, but I wish we had gotten a scene where he plays games with the villains, scaring the crap out of them. The new Mr. Walker still wears a coat (though bizarrely, he walks around with it open at times, revealing his costume and gun belt underneath. While it looks undeniably cool, it is not exactly the smartest way to keep your ”true self” a secret), but instead of a hat he wears a purple tuque, which probably looks hip to young viewers but I suspect will make many phans cringe. No sunglasses, sadly.

One of the great mistakes of the otherwise underrated 1996 film was to provide very little backstory for the Phantom, failing to show what makes the character so unique and appealing. The writers of the mini have not repeated the same mistake, since the series is frequently making references to the Chronicles and their stories about Phantoms of the past. True, writing team Charles and Daniel Knauf, has tweaked the origin of the 1st Phantom too much for my liking, since, mild spoiler ahoy, Christopher Walker no longer finds the body of his father’s murderer on the beach but rather the actual body of his father. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate change or just a big goof, but either way, it’s a very annoying one that should have been changed at script stage. The origin still works perfectly fine, since the inherent concept of it is so powerful and clever, but it’s a great shame it is not completely faithful to the one in the comic.

Obviously due to budgetary concerns, the origin is done in a pretty neat form of moving comic book art (obviously inspired by Pat Quinn’s magnificent drawings in Moonstone’s graphic novel Legacy), which sounds very cheesy on paper but actually works well when seen on screen. This is also the first time we hear the famous Skull Oath said out loud on screen in its proper form (I believe Phantom 2040 included it but messed up some of the words), and it is a moment that, while not exactly filmed the way you have imagined it in your head, should give any phan goose bumps. This is the best representation of the origin on screen so far, with the 1st Phantom ”himself” narrating it in voice over.

Another mistake done by the Zane film and the Tyler serial was that the stories didn’t take much time for romance, which has always been an important part of the Phantom strip. Mr. Knauf and, um, Mr. Knauf, have on the other hand written a sweet and appealing relationship between Kit and an American girl of his age named Renny Davidson (possibly a small nod to the Tyler serial, where Diana’s uncle was called Dr. Davidson). The beautiful Cameron Goodman is just lovely as Renny, there is a part of you who wants to jump into the screen and kiss her.

Actor Cas Anvar (who some action movie enthusiasts will recognize from his small role in an underrated recent film about another comic book hero who uses a skull as his logo, Punisher: War Zone) plays Rhatib Singh, the head of the Singh Brotherhood, and does a fine job with it. He is over the top at times and there are some moments where you expect him to start twirling his moustache, silent-film style, but he still feels like a fairly threatening and unpredictable figure (let’s just say I am happy I do not work for him). However, spoiler on the way again, it’s a shame the only confrontation between him and the Phantom takes place on the phone, as it would have been pretty cool to see them meet face to face. (end of spoiler) The Singh Brotherhood has been modernized in the same way they have been updated in recent Egmont stories, in that they are now a major crime syndicate masquerading as a legal corporation. Thankfully, they also haven’t forgotten how to use swords in 2010.

Guran is played by actress (yes, actress) Sandrine Holt. Possibly intended to be the daughter of the man we see in the comic, she is a good character, and serves much of the same function as the real Guran does in the comics, in that she becomes Kit’s close friend and advisor due to her sympathetic nature and cleverness. While the ”sex change” will annoy many fans, I think it works okay. The beautiful Ms. Holt (boy, does it feel weird to fancy Guran) is a good actress and plays the part well, and you’ll understand why Kit bonds with her so quickly.

There is no sight of Colonel Worubu here, but in his place we have a good character called Abel Vandermaark, played by Jean Marchand, leader (if memory serves me right) of the modern incarnation of the Jungle Patrol (called Bpaa Thap, simply pronounced “Ba Thap”, in case you wondered). His family is said to have worked for the Walker family for five generations, and he plays an essential part in training Kit for his new ”job”. His character becomes more and more intriguing as the series goes on. Blue Velvet star Isabella Rossellini plays Dr. Bella Lithia and gets her name prominently displayed on the film’s poster, rather undeservedly if you ask me as her performance is the weakest link of the cast. Thankfully, she does not have much screen time, but there was something with her acting that just didn’t sit all that well with me (though in her defense she gets to play one of the least interesting characters). We also get an appearance of one Diana Walker. However, while the actress who plays her (her name escapes me and I am much too lazy to go back and watch the credits again) does a fine job with extremely brief screen time, this Diana happens to have a much lighter hair colour than in the comic. Why couldn’t someone be bothered to give her a dark wig? It’s a simple detail that should have been easy to get right (however, like a lot of people, Diana could simply have decided it would be cool to colour her hair…).

The most pointless and irritating change of the entire mini is that Bengalla has been relocated yet again. As phans know Falk originally placed it in India, but would move it to Africa later on where it has mostly stayed since. This new Bengalla, however, is an island located somewhere near Indonesia. I have no idea why this decision was made, but I suspect the budget could be a factor. Why remove the Phantom from the most interesting and struggling continent on our planet, where a figure like him would be needed more than ever? The new setting works (just like it did in the Zane film, which was clearly not set in Africa either), but it’s still disappointing.

Part one of the series has a ”Phantom feel”, but some of it is sadly lost in part two, where things become very, um, tech-y (there are also some minor pacing issues evident in this episode). The plot involves a plan to assassinate the man who could bring peace to the Middle East, which in itself feels like it could be taken out of a Phantom comic, however there is a sci-fi (or is that sy-fy?) twist to it that I’m sure won’t sit well with some fans. For me, though, it worked, as these elements (I don’t want to go further into it what they consist of because it could probably spoil somebody’s enjoyment), but it’s the kind of plot that could have been used by witch doctors in a comic book story, the difference here is that it is done with modern technology instead of some jungle mumbo jumbo.

There are some very nice references that only people who read the comic will pick up on. One of them is an extremely brief cameo from the Whispering Groove: in one scene where one of the characters is shown the way to the Skull Cave, you can barely hear the word “Phantooom” blowing in the wind (at least I thought I did).

The action is solid, which is kind of surprising given that this is not a big budget Hollywood production. There are among other things a great foot-chase through New York, obviously inspired by the free-running scene in Casino Royale, and a fight scene between the Phantom and a French assassin, which works really well. It has the feel of something you’d expect from the fantastic Jason Bourne films (though thankfully without the frenetic cutting of those films), with its hard edged, brutal combat. When the Ghost Who Walks marks villains with the Skull Ring, you really feel the poor schmucks’ pain.

Then there’s the ending. Like I said, it’s a very exciting moment that could lead to an entire season’s worth of future Phantom TV-adventures if used right. I’m obviously not going to spoil anything, but let’s just say that if the show gets picked up, the Phantom won’t have time for a vacation on Keela Wee.

It is obvious that SyFy has actually spent some money on this mini, surprising given how cheap the little I saw of their Flash Gordon looked, and director Paolo Barzman does a good job all in all. The effects and production design is not on par with their fantastic Battlestar Galactica remake (if you haven’t seen it, leave this website right now and buy season one on DVD), but it’s all still quite good. The exterior of the Skull Cave is fine in its own right despite a rather small entrance, but does not look as impressive as it did in the Zane film (which obviously had a much bigger budget), but the interior looks great (though rather light for a cave). The cave has, like everything else in the series, been updated as there is now even a big basement filled to the brim with modern technology, which I’m sure will make some purists cry themselves to sleep.

In short, if you can accept changes, I think you can enjoy the show, like yours truly did. However, purists will probably tear out the hair they have left while watching it, so I suggest you find something else to do with your time. The people who thought the Zane film stayed too far away from the comic should have a field day with this one.

The Phantom is not perfect, but I think it’s good, and that’s all I asked for at this point. It is certainly not the ultimate Phantom adaptation (who ever expected it to be?), but it’s still an entertaining and for the most part well-written modernization of the Ghost Who Walks. Despite a total running time of three hours, I found myself wishing it had been longer. My fingers and toes are crossed that enough people tune in when it airs on SyFy in June to warrant a regular series. Now, somebody please finance The Phantom Legacy and the world will be a much better place.

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