By: John M Jerva
When it comes to action cinema and most notably visceral action cinema, one filmmaker definitely comes up every time there’s a conversation. From co-directing such influential action films as the Crank movies with Jason Statham to helming Gerad Butler in Gamer, Mark Neveldine is one movie maker that knows how to put a different kind of high-octane film on the screen. Neveldine is clearly all in when it comes to making flicks and with his latest thriller, the political action thriller Panama starring Cole Hauser and Mel Gibson, Neveldine is back in the driver’s seat after some time off and with this newest outing, Neveldine shoots from the hip with something a little different but make no mistake, this movie is like something that would have come out of the 80’s.
Panama stars Hauser as a former Marine named Becker who is enlisted by shady government contractor Stark (Gibson) to travel to the highly volatile country of Panama ahead of the U.S. invasion to broker a very important arms deal. While on assignment, Becker is thrust into the chaotic world of political power where no one is who they seem, and one wrong move could mean a bullet to the back of the head. Becker is as tough as they come, of course, and he’s got some tricks up his sleeve and a few lethal skills in his arsenal to stay one step ahead of the nefarious forces at play in this deadly, violent chess game.
I recently had the awesome opportunity to speak with director Mark Neveldine for an exclusive interview and he mentioned how this film was shot in only two weeks during the height of the pandemic. This project at one time was supposed to star Frank Grillo and Morgan Freeman but after COVID hit, the film was shelved until Neveldine and Hauser dusted it off again. Watching the film and knowing that it was only filmed in a few weeks with massive safety protocols in place, it’s amazing to see what they accomplished.
Like I mentioned before, this is a different avenue taken for Neveldine as it’s not the over-the-top exercise in action excess that Crank and Gamer was but it’s more of a stripped down, throwback film with the feel of the 80’s which is when this movie takes place. This is more of a slow burn, political message with action beats spread throughout and if you know that going in then you might have a good time with it.
What works in Panama is due to the fact that Neveldine was at the helm, and he had two prolific actors in Hauser and Gibson to paint his canvas with. Hauser, the son of 80’s action star Wings Hauser, has always been one of my favorite actors in the industry and I always asked why he hasn’t become more of a prominent action star. Hauser does other genres for sure, but he’s got that throwback edginess and roughness to him just like his dad and is a commanding presence on screen whether he’s blowing bad guys away or just involved in a weighty dramatic scene. His face speaks volumes, and he sometimes doesn’t even have to speak to know what he’s thinking.
Hauser is popular right now having starred in four seasons of Paramount’s highly successful series Yellowstone with Kevin Costner so hopefully this opens the door for the versatile actor to star in more of these types of films. His stock is on the rise for sure. Hauser’s Becker is similar to the character of Rip Wheeler that he plays in the show and both these characters have something in common as you would definitely want either character backing you up in a bar fight or a dark alley. His Becker oozes 80’s action vibes complete with the manly hog that he rides throughout the movie.
In terms of screen presence, Mel Gibson is so iconic that he could only be in the movie for two minutes and he will still elevate the material. Gibson’s role of shady government contractor Stark is a one that Gibson can do in his sleep. This is the type of role that Gibson was made for especially at this stage in his career and he backs Hauser up tremendously even though he’s only in a handful of scenes. He certainly makes an impact towards the end of the film, and I was glad to see that his character was as advertised. What more can you say on Gibson?
Panama is not a full-blown action movie and to that degree I was a little disappointed as I wanted to see Hauser and Gibson get more physical with the action. This movie takes a little time to get going but it does suck you into this clandestine world where double and triple crosses are the name of the game. You will have to pay attention as there are many moving pieces to the puzzle, but it does its job and that’s give you a taste of what it was like in that era of the 80’s.
This movie without a doubt harkens back to the decade and we even get some gratuitous sex scenes between Hauser and co-star Kiara Liz who plays Carmila, one of Becker’s players that he runs into. In this day and age of political correctness it was rather refreshing to see some unapologetic dare I say action on screen. I don’t need that in my films at this stage in my life, but I commend Neveldine for going all in with the type of movie this is. It’s clearly an homage to those VHS flicks that graced video store shelves across the country when I was growing up, so I did enjoy the wink and the nudge.
The action is sparce, but it certainly punctuates the black ops drama on display and Hauser is more than up to the task when it comes to wasting some baddies who come calling. I did want more of that, but I was still happy with how the action was shot and Neveldine does let the audience see the mayhem clearly on screen. Fans of motor cross will love the extended sequence of Becker and a certain unethical contact named Enrique Rodriguez (Mauricio Hénao). This guy is clearly not someone to trust but hey, he’s a great motorcycle rider and he tries to cheat fabulously.
Panama is a different beast for Neveldine but you can still see his flavor within the 90-minute running time and his visual flair is still evident even though it’s not as bombastic as his earlier outings. I do love how Neveldine films his action with a handheld camera while zooming on rollerblades as it brings a kinetic feel to the proceedings. If you go in not expecting Crank or Gamer, then you might enjoy the ride and story he’s telling. It’s not for everyone though and I can see the haters mounting their campaign right now. This is a film that has a distinct message, and it is like a violent chess game. There was a supposed surprise twist with one character that, even with my neurological disorder, I saw coming a mile away, so the script is filled with the usual cliches of the time. It’s not a bad thing but it was out of place in a movie that had some unexpected twists and turns.
Overall. Panama is definitely a switch for Mark Neveldine and it is a movie that whisks you away back to the 80’s in terms of plot and style but that’s its charm. It is slow and the pacing is uneven from time to time, but Hauser and Gibson sell it with their bravado, and you’ll stay invested with the film because of them and Neveldine’s simplistic yet usual flair here. The action that is there is handled with respect and to know that they only had a 14-day shooting schedule weighed into my overall judgement of the movie. Fans of the filmmaker’s more high-octane entries will surely be disappointed, but you have to remember what they had to work with. If they had a bigger budget and a longer shooting window maybe this film would have risen a little higher in terms of other films like it but for what it is, just sit down, crack open a beer and enjoy the political incorrectness.
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