The Phantom

Don't they ever learn? every summer, Hollywood drags another hero out of comic strips, pulp novels, radio shows or video games in the hopes of creating the next Batman or Superman franchise. The result is usually something silly like The Shadow, with Alec Baldwin lurking behind a cloak. Billy Zane looks even sillier in The Phantom. We're talking real silly, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers silly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles silly. As the crime fighter of Lee Falk's still-thriving comic strip, begun in 1936, Zane must squeeze into a purple bodysuit and try to look stalwart astride a stallion called Hero, with a trusty wolf, Devil, by his side. In fact, Zane looks more like a California raisin in one of those chirpy TV ads.

Zane, a good actor in the right circumstances (Orlando, Dead Calm), is trapped by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and Australian director Simon Wincer (Free Willy), who don't give him anything to act. Treat Williams gets the only funny lines as the villainous industrialist Xander Drax. Everybody else — including Kristy Swanson as the adventurous Diana Palmer and Catherine Zeta Jones as a slinky aviatrix more avid to get into Diana's pants than into the Phantom's — merely poses.

Zane preens prettily in purple or dudes up in snappy '30s duds to play the Phantom's alter ego, babe magnet Kit Walker. Kit is carrying on a family tradition dating back 400 years, when an ancestor, then a small boy, vowed to avenge the murder of his father by pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood. The first Phantom spawned others — Kit is the 21st — sworn to fight injustice, even without superpowers. Of course, the world thinks it's the same Phantom, dubbed the Ghost Who Walks. Expect this ghost of bad movies past to walk quickly to the back bins of Blockbuster, where it should be filed under a helpful heading, monotonous and juvenile.