What makes this such a lousy movie is that it's a virtual house of cliches--from the expensive re-creation of art-deco New York down to the lazy caricature of hard-boiled dialogue. It's stuffed with flashy special effects--devil's-head daggers that screech and bare their fangs, and the usual quotas of monsters and morphs--but these gimcracks don't compensate much for lame, campy moviemaking. Imagine the least likable elements of Superman, Batman and Dick Tracy, and you've got the idea.
The Shadow, you may recall, was the superheroic alter ego of one Lamont Cranston, suave Manhattan playboy. Although the prologue here is almost impossible to unravel, Cranston has been cursed with a dark side because of some earlier misadventures in China, but he holds back the night by fighting crime.
In this case, crime means a sinister, mustached descendant of Genghis Khan (John Lone) who's trying to assemble a preatomic bomb in the Big Apple and control the world. Good luck. Title-roler Alec Baldwin, a talented actor making a little lunch money, is just too good at "clouding men's minds," spreading his black cape in the wind and deciphering the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.
This Shadow's got help. Penelope Ann Miller is his plucky love interest, Peter Boyle his faithful driver, Jonathan Winters (whose grand comic talents are underused here) the unsuspecting cop/uncle. Throw in an absentminded professor (Ian Mc-Kellen) and his slimy assistant (Tim Curry), and you've got it all.
The movie's Australian-born director, Russell Mulcahy, has given the world 300 rock videos, commercials for beer, booze and cars and the two Highlander movies. His talents are appropriate to the present undertaking.
Oliver North and Colin Powell probably won't be catching Coming Out Under Fire during Gay Pride Week. But Americans of all sexual and political persuasions would do well to see this brief, heartfelt documentary about official prejudice against homosexual U.S. soldiers during World War II. Particularly in light of the Clinton administration's new "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Filmmaker Arthur (no kidding) Dong takes just 71 minutes to conquer the moral high ground. Through interviews with a dozen former servicemen and -women and supported by historical research from Allan Berube's book of the same name, he shows us the government persecution of men and women who wished nothing more than to serve their country against a universally despised enemy. No Vietnam, WWII.
As always, today's viewers should be careful not to judge the mass culture of the 1940s by present standards. This was, after all, the time of Japanese-American internments and widespread race-baiting. Still, the official hypocrisies and mendacities remain clear enough half a century later. Criminals. Mentally ill. Security risks. Threats to unit cohesion. All these labels were applied to gays and lesbians, whose evasions and secrets were the necessary weapons in another kind of war.
One of the interviewees, former Army Air Corps intelligence clerk Bruce Lee, is particularly effective. Black and gay, he served his time at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama in "a double whammy. And you had better watch what you said and did."
Like most of those who speak here, Lee is quietly outraged, not belligerent, and there is wisdom in him. That gives Coming Out Under Fire dignity as well as passion--valuable commodities in an uncivilized age.