Zukor: You like parties?
Jason: Is that what this is?
Zukor: You're sharp, Blade.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
DAY OF THE PANTHER (1987)
There are trailers in circulation on YouTube and elsewhere that gave me the impression that the Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith was someone to watch for tough action cinema from the '70s and '80s. A quick check of his filmography reveals his best-regarded work probably to be the Vietnam War film The Siege of Firebase Gloria from 1989. Before taking on that task, however, he made a pair of martial arts films set in Perth, Day of the Panther being the first. It would not make you optimistic about his later work.
The Panther films were meant to make a star out of one Edward John Stazak. He's introduced to us as Jason Blade, undergoing an initiation ritual at the Temple of the Panthers alongside Linda Anderson, observed by her father and Jason's mentor, William Anderson. Jason and Linda aren't just martial artists, they're also undercover agents for the British government of Hong Kong. Jason closes out his initiation by branding himself, an obligation Linda is apparently spared. This done, we see them sneak into a restaurant to observe a drug deal between some local gangsters and an Australian. He's Baxter, the right hand man of Damien Zukor, the crime boss of Perth. The deal goes bad and Baxter shoots his way out. Detected, Jason and Linda fight their way out, but just miss Baxter.
Linda tracks Baxter back to Perth. She finds herself stalked by three guys in masks: a skull-face, an old-man, and a pig -- or more likely some sort of cartoon pig that Australians might recognize. In an extended sequence, stuttering cross-cut with Jason gradually making his way to Perth, where the local cops mistake him for "one of the top triad enforcers," the masked dudes pursue Linda through an abandoned factory, and she gradually wears them down. It looks like she kills at least two of them, one getting impaled and the other thrown off a roof after a very convincingly clumsy rooftop chase. But it turns out that they've only softened her up for Baxter, who beats her down pretty easily, then finishes her with a switchblade.
The problem with Day of the Panther is that I've just described the action highlight of the movie, and it has about an hour to go. As Linda, Linda Megier is no great shakes as an actress, which may be why most of her subsequent credits are for stunt work, but she's nice to watch fighting for her life, and she at least brings a conviction to her big action scene that Edward John Stazak completely lacks. He's one of the most laid-back avengers you'll ever see in a genre film, and wears a dopey smirk on his face most of the time. The Panther films appear to be his only movie work, and that doesn't surprise me.
It isn't clear whether Jason Blade and Linda were romantically linked, but I suspect not. Jason's mode of mourning seems to involve training on the beach. Meanwhile, Linda's dad is hardly more bereaved. He runs a gym in Perth, and he's very quick to foist his niece Gemma (Paris Jefferson) on Jason. She's quick to foist herself, later seducing Jason in a ghastly '80s workout costume as "Take Me Back" plays on the boombox. But I get ahead of myself. We must backtrack as Jason plots his revenge by infiltrating Damien Zukor's organization. He shows up at Zukor's marina to apply for work by beating up a bunch of his bodyguards.
Soon afterwards the cops bring Jason in to warn him against blowing their delicate investigation of Zukor. Two lame comedy-relief cops, Flinders and Lambert, are assigned to tail him. Meanwhile, Jason's strategy has paid off. Zukor was so impressed by his demonstration that he's invited him to a party, where they match wits with such brilliant repartee as:
Zukor gives Jason a tryout. Sent to deliver a drug parcel, our hero is ambushed but prevails with minimal fuss. News of this latest brawl further alarms the cops, with Flinders announcing, "We can't have him running around Perth conducting his own version of the gunfight at the OK Corral!" As it happens, Jason was set up with fake drugs; Zukor wanted to see if he'd run off with the goods. Zukor trusts him more now, but Baxter doesn't. Baxter struts about in a Miami Vice style getup and seethes with jealousy of Zukor. "He has weaknesses like most men," Baxter says of his boss, in a manner that made me wonder about Baxter.
Who can blame Baxter when Zukor has the bright idea of hyping Jason as Baxter's challenger in his annual martial-arts tournament, held in an amphitheater, by spreading the story that Jason had already beaten Baxter in a fight? Jason himself has supposedly suggested doing this so Zukor can clean up when he helpfully throws the fight, but Baxter likes the situation less and less. He sends some guys to do a Nancy Kerrigan to Jason in a parking garage, but Blade prevails in the usual rout. In the meantime, Baxter sneaks into the Anderson gym, grabs Gemma and interrogates her about Jason, and is challenged by William. Baxter gets one good shot in, but when William declares himself unimpressed, Baxter bails, announcing, "I don't have time for this shit!"
He's back again later and strikes paydirt: a picture of Jason and Linda Anderson, proving that Jason must be a special agent himself. He gets more men to attack Jason at a basketball court, and this time Jason runs for it. William and Gemma ride to the rescue and they all head to the amphitheater, where they suspect Zukor keeps his drugs. This time Zukor captures them all and stages a decisive fight between Jason and Baxter for his own amusement....
The early factory fight is not only the highlight of the film but the most violent scene. The rest, the climax especially, is quite anticlimactic, especially given that this is supposed to be a revenge film. But Jason and William seem all too mellow when it counts, if only to set up the sequel, Strike of the Panther (also known as Fists of Blood), announced at the end of the film. But the limp ending is consistent with the lack of enthusiasm and energy throughout the project. Trenchard-Smith must have realized that Stazak wasn't much to work with. That would explain the perfunctory, almost demoralized quality of the production. Since I was watching a fullscreen copy from the Mill Creek Entertainment Drive-In Classics box set, I concede that the film wasn't shown in optimum format, but it didn't look like I was missing much on the sides of the frame. On this evidence, Australian kung fu is no good, but I'm willing to be proven wrong on that point.