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Shadow, The (Blu-ray) (1994)
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Details At A Glance
Year Of Production
||Cast & Crew
Penelope Ann Miller
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For Universal Studios, The Shadow was intended to be the beginning of a new cinematic franchise, as the marketing machine was put into overdrive, hyping this 1994 flick through merchandising and trailers. Unfortunately, it landed with a thud, receiving unflattering reviews and utterly flopping at the box office. Yet, it has deservedly gathered something of a cult following on home video, though it still remains a painfully underrated superhero endeavour which deserves a lot more credit than it gets. The Shadow is best described as a hybrid of Indiana Jones and Tim Burton's Batman, and it's every bit as awesome as that description implies. A slice of pure matinee fun, The Shadow is utterly delightful, a tongue-in-cheek comic book adventure which embraces its silliness, with one-liners, over-the-top villains, hammy plotting and gaudy characters. It's easily in the same league as similar productions like Dick Tracy and The Phantom.
A former American soldier during World War I, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has given over to madness, residing in Tibet where he has established himself as a ruthless crime lord. However, he is offered the chance to redeem himself by becoming The Shadow, a telepathic hero who can cloud minds and exert incredible psychic influence over his victims. Returning to New York City, Cranston seeks to use his newfound gifts to clean up the streets, along the way developing an ever-expanding society of sidekicks and allies, including his loyal driver Moe (Peter Boyle). The Shadow is presented with a unique challenge, though, with the arrival of powerful psychic warrior Shiwan Khan (John Lone), who's determined to destroy the Big Apple unless the city bows to his rule. As Cranston sets out to stop Khan, he also meets a strong burgeoning telepath named Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), whose scientist father (Ian McKellen) is under Khan's control.
The Shadow started life in the pages of pulp magazines back in the 1930s, and later in a radio serial with Orson Welles. The character predates Batman, and it would seem that he influenced the Caped Crusader in a number of aspects. The source material never revealed The Shadow's origins, compelling screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) to construct a former life for Cranston before he donned the cape. Without weighing down the narrative too much, Koepp's brisk exploration of Cranston's origins is spot-on, finding him as a brutal warlord and opium kingpin in post-WWI Tibet. It deepens Cranston's character by giving him a villainous back-story, as he is repenting for his sins by acting as a vigilante and working to remove the criminal element of NYC. There's a rich, detailed world at play here, and the movie takes advantage of the characteristics which make The Shadow a unique hero. The movie also maintains the character's dark edge, as he does not baulk from killing.
With the 21st Century begetting comic book movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man, it's refreshing to witness a superhero movie which differs from the "origins story" template. Although Cranston's dark past is established in the story's early stages, The Shadow subsequently flashes forward a number of years to find Cranston fully established as The Shadow. Origin tales are usually the least fun, as such franchises never really take off until the second instalment, hence The Shadow gets credit for diving straight into the fun stuff. More recent comic book movies are either too soft or too "dark and gritty," but this is a reminder of a different era, when filmmakers simply took the material with the sincerity it deserved (see also: The Crow). Director Russell Mulcahy's old-school approach is to be admired, and there's plenty of atmosphere, not to mention the film noir disposition renders it a unique beast in this day and age. Koepp's script is also peppered with amusing dialogue, setting out to recreate the witty, razor-sharp bantering of old screwball comedies.
The Shadow is a visually spectacular motion picture, supported by elegant production design and gorgeous period-specific costumes. Jerry Goldsmith's flavoursome score is a superlative accompaniment; it's one of his most overlooked works, and now the soundtrack recording is a hot commodity among nerds and collectors. Prior to The Shadow, Australian filmmaker Mulcahy was recognised for films like Razorback and Highlander, and this project had the potential to establish him as a blockbuster filmmaker. Although its failure has led to an uneven career for Mulcahy, his handling of Koepp's script is spectacular, as the production is full of exciting action set-pieces, and the cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is both effective and artful. Admittedly, some of the special effects look comparatively dated, but there is a certain charm to seeing matte paintings and optical effects which were executed on the very brink of the digital revolution. The Shadow is an enjoyable sit, and the competent craftsmanship is one of its many benefits. It may seem a tad on the cheesy side, but such cheesiness is endearing, not to mention accurate to the source material.
There is a genuinely impressive cast driving The Shadow, led by Baldwin who's ideally suited for the role of the titular superhero. His scowl and gravelly voice is a natural fit for The Shadow, while his tremendous movie star charisma makes him believable as the wealthy playboy Lamont Cranston. Penelope Ann Miller provides the requisite eye candy as Cranston's love interest, while the rest of the roles are filled by such great actors as Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and John Lone. The late great Boyle is particularly good (he has always been adept with comedy), while Lone makes for an excellent villain.
Unfairly maligned and overlooked, The Shadow remains a top-notch example of a superhero flick which does justice to the dense source material while also having fun along the way. And, unlike all of today's numerous comic book movies, it exists to tell a standalone story and establish this universe, rather than leaving tonnes of loose ends to set up sequels. On top of being flat-out fun, it is also a well-made blockbuster which tells a coherent story and contains a solid amount of character development. It's a shame that things didn't work out for the film, as further adventures of The Shadow would be an enticing prospect indeed. There might be a few storytelling and pacing issues, but The Shadow is pure popcorn entertainment which is often enjoyable and features a kaleidoscope of colourful supporting characters.
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Finally making its Blu-ray debut in Australia, Umbrella Entertainment present Russell Mulcahy's The Shadow in AVC-encoded, 1080p high definition, framed at the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Comparing this disc to the remastered Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, it's instantly apparent that Umbrella made use of an old HD video master, as opposed to the remaster. (It's worth pointing out that the remaster is presented at open matte 1.78:1, and shows more visual information on all sides of the frame.) However, the news is not as bad as I had feared from this discovery. Umbrella could have cheapened out by compressing the film onto a single-layered BD-25, but the company instead makes use of a dual-layered BD-50, and the 107-minute picture has the entire disc to itself. Therefore, the movie is mastered with a superb average video bitrate approaching 34 Mbps, making this the best possible rendering of a flawed, ancient video master.
First things first, the negative. As stated previously, an old video master was used to create this Blu-ray; perhaps not the same master as the original DVD released in the year 2000 (which starts out at 2.35:1 before transitioning to 1.85:1 - more on that later), but certainly of a similar vintage. And since old Universal masters are notoriously bad, this is not encouraging news. Thankfully, I was unable to detect any signs of digital noise reduction, as the image never looks smeary or smooth. However, edge enhancement runs rampant, holy moly. Edge halos are discernible at times, but the over-sharpening is apparent because edges look sometimes jagged, with characters appearing separate from the scenery - it makes it look as if props and people are in front of green screen backdrops. If only Universal laid off the rampant sharpening, this could have been a nice transfer on the whole. Those who don't notice or care about edge enhancement will likely adore this Blu-ray, but once you see it... you can't unsee it, and it makes the presentation look slightly off a lot of the time, particularly during softer shots which look bizarre with such sharpening. Less problematic, but still noticeable, are the video artefacts throughout. The opening credits in particular feature ample print damage, with visible hairs and specks, while gate weave is likewise noticeable. The severity of the print damage settles down once the film begins proper, but there are still specks and instances of telecine wobble from time to time. This might bother you, but a lot of time you won't notice these artefacts unless you're looking for them (the joys of being a reviewer).
According to a user comment on the original 2000 DVD, the film's opening credits are apparently meant to be framed at 2.35:1, while the rest of the movie is framed at 1.85:1. Comparisons reveal that the 2.35:1 segment is actually cropped as opposed to open matte, and I haven't read any definitive statements about whether or not this is the intended way to experience The Shadow. Whatever the case, this presentation remains at 1.85:1 from start to finish, and framing looks absolutely fine - nothing seems misaligned. Luckily, it appears that Universal left the film grain in-tact, as a fine layer of grain coats the transfer. And thanks to the top-notch encode with a perpetually generous bitrate, the grain looks well-refined and fine, as opposed to distractingly blocky or chunky. Naturally, grain does spike during the optical shots, such as the opening titles or any shot containing special effects, which traces back to the original photography. It is fortunate that no distracting grain management was used for the optical shots - and this is surely a miracle considering Universal's notorious track record for egregious DNR. Umbrella's video encode thankfully never gives rise to any detectable anomalies, such as aliasing or macroblocking. There is some minor banding as the "Shadow" title gradually appears at the very beginning, but this appears to be traceable to the original computer rendering, as the very same banding appears on the remastered edition. No other banding appears throughout the movie.
The Blu-ray brings out as much fine detail as the dated master permits, though the textures are quite pleasing on the whole, showing a marked improvement over the DVD. Close-ups expectedly reveal the best texturing, such as a close-up of Baldwin's face at 23:02, though wide and mid shots still look sufficiently detailed for a HD master. The image is tighter than anticipated - tighter than the previous Blu-ray renderings of this same video master. There are limitations, of course, which is traceable to the dated film scanning techniques from the late '90s/early noughties when this scan of the film elements was performed. Additionally, shadow detail is expectedly hit-and-miss, such as in the low-lit taxi with Dr. Roy after he's saved at around the 15-minute mark, or at the Cobalt Club when Cranston hypnotises his uncle, bathed in shadows. However, I've seen worse. Also worth mentioning are the colours. Again, due to the master's age, the colours are somewhat on the weak side, lacking the type of "pop" we've come to expect from this type of production. Skin tones look unnatural most of the time, though we get occasionally strong primaries, including the red rings which glow, or any instances of flames, or Miller's red lipstick. The colours are serviceable, but leave something to be desired - the Shout! Factory remaster is more vibrant. It's also worth pointing out that blacks are oppressive at times, giving rise to black crush, though this appears to be a shortcoming of the master, as opposed to the encode.
If this Blu-ray was released ten years ago, reviewers would be raving, me included. However, home video masters have come a long way since then, and now we're spoiled by 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with added High Dynamic Range. In comparison, the shortcomings of this master are all the more apparent, with superfluous edge enhancement and often dull colours, but at least grain is prominent and texturing is adequate most of the time. With Umbrella's solid encode and a healthy video bitrate, The Shadow is perfectly watchable on Blu-ray, and it was a pleasure to revisit - fans should find it perfectly watchable. I just hope that someday, the money is spent to remaster the film from the original camera negative (the Shout! Factory remaster was a 2K scan of the interpositive).
No subtitles are included.
Video Ratings Summary
The disc's sole audio option is a 24-bit DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix. The movie was exhibited in cinemas back in 1994 with DTS Stereo, and was later remixed in 5.1 for its home video release. The resulting track does its job pretty well without rising to the heights of the format's best audio mixes, though audiophiles are destined to whinge about the lack of an Atmos track (I'm personally not bothered). Admittedly, the track carries the same limitations as you'd expect from a 1994 production, as doesn't have the pitch-perfect clarity of a 2019 production, but it's still perfectly intelligible and clear throughout, thanks to the immaculate lossless encode. Dialogue is well-prioritised, never getting lost amid the sound effects or music, and every line is comprehensible, which is fortunate given the disc's lack of subtitles.
Surround activity is evident when the occasion calls for it. For instance, when The Shadow confronts the mobsters on the bridge, at the 9:45 mark you can hear his laughter coming from all around, with noticeable separation. Cranston's subsequent dialogue also comes from all channels, making it sound all-encompassing and powerful by design. When said mobsters fires all around at the 10:30 mark, separation is evident for ricochets and gunshots. On that note, the subwoofer effectively accentuates the gunshots throughout, as they carry sufficient punch and impact. Likewise for punching sound effects. The surround channels are also used for ambience as well as non-diegetic sounds, for instance at 61:40 when Cranston wanders the streets of Chinatown which is replete with fireworks. Jerry Goldsmith's superb original score also occupies the surround channels to terrific effect, never sounding compromised in any way.
Umbrella's encode never leads to any anomalies, such as sync issues, drop-outs, crackling, hissing, or popping. I have no complaints about this fine 5.1 mix.
Audio Ratings Summary
|Surround Channel Use|
Absolutely nothing. Not a trailer. Not an interview. Nothing. Not even a disc menu.
R4 vs R1
NOTE: To view
non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually
also NTSC compatible.
The Region A Collector's Edition from Shout! Factory contains:
These same extras, and the same transfer, appear on the UK Medium Rare Blu-ray release. The German Blu-ray from Koch features the same master as the Umbrella Blu, but with worse encoding (a pitiful video bitrate of 21.28 Mbps), and with the following bonus features:
- Remastered video presentation
- Original 2.0 Stereo track
- Looking Back at The Shadow (23:44)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:57)
- Photo Gallery (8:17)
Soooo Umbrella's disc comes up very short in the special features department. The win probably goes to the Shout! disc. We're still waiting for the definitive release of this one, which brings together all available extras as well as a superior remaster.
- Making of (9:20)
- Cast & Crew Interviews
- Behind the Scenes (18:49)
- Music Video (5:24)
- 4 TV Spots
- 4 Galleries (Marketing, Press Photos, Behind the Scenes, Storyboards)
I wouldn't put it in the same league as the best Marvel Cinematic Universe titles, but The Shadow is an underrated gem that deserves your attention. It would make for a terrific '90s superhero marathon, along with The Phantom, Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer.
For its Blu-ray debut in Australia courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment, the movie looks and sounds pretty good on the whole, better than I expected, making this a worthy upgrade for fans. Unfortunately, the lack of extras is super disappointing. As always for these barebones releases, though, it's a fine purchase if you don't care about special features.
© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Friday, September 06, 2019
|DVD||Sony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output|
This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver.
This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
|Amplification||Samsung Series 7 HT-J7750W|
|Speakers||Samsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up|
not friendly for those with hearing difficulties