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Two-Fisted Tales.

By Coury Turczyn

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Back in the era of true pulp fiction, action heroes were typically men of mystery—equipped with masks, working in the shadows, empowered by secret Asian mind control techniques, and not above slugging somebody right in the mouth. These days, action heroes are simply guys who blow shit up faster than the bad guys—give 'em a few machine guns, some plastic explosives, and let 'em rip! Yeee-haws! While that's what brings in the big box office today, some studios have been daring to resurrect old fashioned, two-fisted heroes (God bless 'em)—though with mixed results.

Last summer's surprise hit was Universal's remake of The Mummy (PG-13, 1999), starring Brendan Fraser as an adventurous Legionnaire who must battle an ancient Egyptian curse (in the form of a digitally animated corpse). While the original was slow-burn horror, the updated version comes on like a poor man's Indiana Jones—which isn't a bad thing. Fraser may be playing a classic (Harrison Ford) tough guy here, but he does so with such boyish enthusiasm that it's hard not to enjoy his performance, and he holds the movie together. Often derivative and a little too silly, The Mummy is nevertheless good, clean fun starting with its nifty flashback opening set at the time of the pyramids to its spooky sandstorm special effects and its pulpy side characters. While it may not offer the breathtaking surprises of Steven Spielberg's original retro adventure, The Mummy still provides enough familiar pleasures to be worth a rent.

One of the original pulp heroes, The Shadow is also one you might think too anachronistic to appeal to audiences today. And you're probably right, at least as the mystical crime fighter appears in Alec Baldwin's version of The Shadow (PG-13, 1994). Sumptuously designed and well cast (there's nothing like Tim Curry as a sniveling villain), the glossy movie never quite gets off the ground due to atrociously written dialogue and choppy editing (or perhaps it was a choppy script to begin with). While The Shadow does summon the art deco moodiness of its 1930s setting, it sadly cannot propel itself by production design alone. Baldwin masters the character's dark glare, but he doesn't quite capture the balance between pulp character and human being that the movie role requires.

And then there's The Phantom (PG, 1996), which also attempts to sell modern audiences on a masked avenger from the '30s. Although Billy Zane does his darndest in what must be the tightest tights of any superhero, the story and dialogue never really spark the imagination. Certainly not terrible (it'd be really good as a TNT movie of the week), The Phantom nevertheless lays to rest yet another hero from pulp fiction's past. Maybe if they'd gotten Bruce Willis to play him...with an M-16 or two...

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