In "The Phantom," why does a 1930s-era masked superhero in purple tights (Billy Zane) battle a megalomaniacal New York businessman (Treat Williams) over possession of three skulls, a source of ancient power? Because it is his duty and because, as he says, "there's a woman involved." (Rated PG.)
It is 1939. Dangerous dictators are popping up around the world. Airplanes are propelled by propellers. Heroes ride white horses and swing on vines. People say things such as "so long, pal" and "gosh, you're pretty in those woodsy flannels."
Maybe it's old-fashioned action, but the Phantom's brand of adventure had kids of the '90s jumping in their seats and clutching their stuffed animals.
"It got me so scared!, said Naomi Salazar, 6, of Garden Grove.
The action takes place partly on the breathtakingly beautiful volcanic island of Bengalla, home to generations of do-gooder Phantoms and dreaded members of the Sengh Brotherhood, and partly in the rainy streets, upper-class mansions and moderne boardrooms of New York.
We learn that businessman-evil thug Xander Drax (Williams) has been reading up on the power of Bengalla's long lost skulls (when joined together, their power exceeds by 1,000 times that of "any force or explosive known to man"). The Phantom, also sometimes known as mild-mannered college man Kit Walker, gets involved when Drax's minions kidnap the lovely Diana Palmer (Orange County's own Kristy Swanson), the daughter of a nosy newspaper publisher who has flown to Bengalla to investigate.
Chris Concilio, 10, and David Wiedeman, 8, buddies from Aliso Viejo, admitted that they hadn't known too much about the Phantom, who David mistakenly thought might have abilities like Superman's. But the boys were quickly impressed by the movie's special effects showing the skulls' abilities to fly through the air, vaporize evil men and do laser battle with the Phantom's own skull ring.
Just as much, they appreciated the daring stunts, such as when Diana and the Phantom leaped from the wings of a low-flying plane onto a galloping horse.
"They were good," said Chris. His favorite stunt was when the Phantom leaped from an elevator shaft into a building and escaped certain death "by about that much."
David liked a chase through Central Park that ended when the Phantom leaped into a tiger's cage. "The tiger scared me," David admitted.
There is an abundance of Sock! Pow! Thwap! comic-book-type violence, whose volume had some kids covering their ears. The leader of the Sengh Brotherhood dies a bloody death in a shark moat. Adult language is mild, limited to a few "damns."
But in a '90s twist, the Phantom himself gets rescued occasionally, sometimes by Diana, a thoroughly modern heroine who can swing on vines, is more than capable of throwing her own nasty punches and doesn't automatically swoon just because some masked crusader with a washboard torso wants to marry her.
After this introduction, Chris said the Phantom seems to be a strong contender in the crowded field of old-fashioned, mythic superheroes. "I would say he would be the best," David said. Why the best? "Because I don't watch any of the other ones."