Panama is a muddled and befuddling film, offering a few choice Neveldine aesthetic choices but otherwise exhibiting a confused embrace of cliché.
Intended as a temporary career adjustment, the fracturing of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s directorial partnership has held fast since 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which remains their last collaboration. The duo have teased reunions (most notably a third Crank and a long-in-development The Warriors remake) in the years following the second Ghost Rider movie, but despite fairly sparse solo output from both, the call to collaborate has remained unanswered. A shame, as their Crank films and 2009’s Gamer remain high points of recent American action cinema, characterized by a distinctively grimy visual aesthetic and a radical interpretation of cinematic kineticism informed by videogames and post-MTV reality sleaze, and achieved through a variety of daring, uncouth techniques (i.e., shooting while rollerblading, attaching cameras to ropes and swinging them around). Taylor’s very nasty 2017 outing Mom and Dad remains a solid, off-beat continuation of their filmmaking style, albeit one apparently too grotesque for wider audiences, but beyond that, very little else bearing their voice has managed to see the light of day. What has otherwise made its way to audiences has mostly disappointed, namely Mark Neveldine’s The Vatican Tapes, a modestly budgeted Lionsgate horror film that just managed to make its money back and not much more. As such, Neveldine has mostly stuck to producing since that film’s 2015 release (Taylor has kept busy with a Cristopher Meloni SyFy show), but in December 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic and with the backing of stars Mel Gibson and Cole Hauser, money suddenly came together for a lean, cheap Puerto Rico-based 14-day shoot that got the lapsed director back in the game.
The resulting film, Panama, fails to overcome the severe constraints of its scant shooting schedule (intensified by rigorous, apparent Covid safety protocols), generally keeping to a level of quality associated with contemporary VOD productions of the Emmett/Furla Oasis variety, though with a greater sense of investment and fun than is usually apparent in those “geezer teasers.” Pulling from a script that’s been floating around for a bit and which had previously had Morgan Freeman and Frank Grillo attached, Neveldine’s interpretation casts the aforementioned Hauser and Gibson in the leading roles, former military men now abusing their knowhow and training to run shady international arms deals. Set in 1989 (and supposedly based on a true story), Hauser’s Becker is dispatched to Panama shortly before the U.S.’s real-life invasion on behalf of Gibson’s Stark (a role that allows for ample sitting and phone convos) in order to execute an illegal, million-dollar weapons contract. Yanked out of a depressive, alcoholic spiral and thrust into a lusty, corrupt country overrun by gangsters and feds, Becker inevitably finds himself blowing away faceless bad guys and romancing a sultry, duplicitous local in what is ultimately a pretty low-rent, very American take on James Bond-type trope and narrative. Attempting a tone somewhere between knowing, pseudo-ironic machismo and grizzled post-Mann self-seriousness, no one involved can quite figure out the best way to modulate either approach, making it hard to determine to what extent Panama is making fun of itself (unfortunately, Hauser’s Becker brings Tim Heidecker’s Decker character to mind, even divorced from their rhyming monikers). Offering little beyond laughs of debatable intent, Neveldine-heads will appreciate the extended off-road BMX chase scene — cutting between multiple go-pro setups and adopting some really avant-garde perspectives — but most everyone else will likely be put off by its obvious low production value and confused embrace of cliché.