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PANAMA (2022) review

March 22, 2022


written by: Daniel Adams and William Barber
produced by: Jordan Yale Levine, Jordan Beckerman, Shaun Sanghani, Michelle, Chydzik Sowa, Michelle Reihel & Stanley Preschutti
directed by: Mark Neveldine
rated: R (for violence, sexual content, nudity, drug use and language)
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: March 18, 2022


If “Panama” a movie set during the political unrest of Central America in the late 80’s is directed by Mark Neveldine, you’d think it would be the polar opposite of boring. After all, this is the guy who co-directed “Crank” back in 2006 with his partner Brian Taylor, a manic, adrenalized action thriller with a twisted sense of humor. The duo would go on to helm a sequel to “Crank”, “Gamer”, and “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”, all of which were supercharged with violence and chaos. 2015 saw Neveldine step out from the noteworthy partnership for his first solo outing with “The Vatican Tapes” one of those Catholic horror flicks that immediately flopped, proving maybe the director’s best when paired with Taylor.

The low-budget thriller “Panama” is another case example for that theory, in fact, it’s less interesting than his previous film. Needlessly convoluted and completely over-stylized considered there’s hardly any action or thrills.



Former marine James Becker (Cole Hauser) is in a haze of despair after the death of his wife. Down and out, he’s supposedly been in a drunken stupor next to his wife’s grave for most of 1989. He’s found by Stark (Mel Gibson), his former commander, who offers Becker a black ops mission that’ll take him to Panama and require him to blend in with the precarious climate of Panamian dictator Manuel Noriega’s reign. Becker is tasked with purchasing a Russian helicopter from the dictator to help the Contras battle the Sandinistas after the whole Iran-Contra scandal left the U.S. Government with alternate ways to back the guerillas fighting the socialist regime.

Never mind that Becker is in no condition to go out on a black ops mission, since that’s supposedly the draw here. We’re supposed to be intrigued and wonder how a guy who is barely holding on can follow through with this assignment, but instead we’re left wondering how he can stay vertical.

Once Becker arrives in the titular country, he begins to make connections that will lead him down the right path of his objective. He hooks up with drug dealer Enrique (Mauricio Henao) which gives him exclusive access to Noriega’s right-hand man, Colonel Justines (Nestor Rodulfo), offering an initial payment of one million dollars to make things happen. However, Justines isn’t interested in playing fair and looks to keep the cash for himself. This throws Becker off as he becomes preoccupied with the needs of local prostitute Camilla (Kiara Liz, who seemingly shows up just to get naked), someone he’s quickly fallen for. Considering how torn up he was over his dead wife for the better part of a year, it’s laughable how quickly Becker and Camilla bump uglies. It’s also hilarious how Neveldine and cinematographer Pedro Juan Lopez – who has a penchant for unnecessarily swirling and swooping camera movements in an attempt to make the most mundane scenes (hotel rooms! beach shorelines!) interesting, which inadvertently winds up becoming annoying quite fast.



While Becker is earning the trust of Enrique, he must also contend with an assortment of other characters that are introduced rather quickly without much context and very few details. Caught between ruthless Contra leader Steadman Fagoth Müller (Julio Ramos Velez) and his demanding DEA contact Cuynthia Benitez (Jackie Cruz), Becker must carefully navigate his way through a congested storyline. When Becker’s sister-in-law (Kate Katzman) and his CIA handler (played by Charlie Weber), briefly show up there just seems no need for either of them. Screenwriters William Barber and Daniel Adams through all sorts of characters into the mix, without really offering viewers a chance to get invested in who or what Becker is. Supposedly he’s some kinda mythic tough guy, but not context or details are given to support such an assumption. Hauser has proven he can be a great tough guy, even when with some added dimension (check him out in “Yellowstone” for proof), but we’re gonna need more here than just sunglasses and motorcycle vibes.



Besides overall boredom, “Panama” has bigger problems, like how it talks down to its audience while it bogs down the storyline with too much exposition and generic broad strokes. It doesn’t help that the movie opens up with what feels like 10 minutes of opening credit info before the story actually starts, but then we get definitions of terms that pop up on the screen throughout the movie, in case we don’t know what a “narc” is. They either knew their story would have too much or felt the geopolitical tensions from 33 years ago would be too far-removed from today’s viewers. When Gibson’s Stark shows up now and then (with the veteran actor sleep-walking through a sardonic role), and even he admits the story is a mess, when we hear his character admit the details are “clear as mud”, confirming no one involved is going out of their way to make any of this make sense.

If “Panama” was a comedy perhaps it would’ve improved the viewing experience, since Becker screws up at just about every turn. He’s either losing a handle on a situation or watching in disbelief at how situations play out around him. He’s a character who shouldn’t be so easily pushed around or deceived, but maybe if the intent were to make us chuckle or add some levity, this protagonist might be easier to get on board with.

Despite the title, Neveldine shot much of the movie in Puerto Rico, albeit cramped rooms, hotel balconies, and office spaces. It’s hard to grasp any cultural distinction with such locations, much less conjure any excitement for the story offered. At just about every turn, the director makes some unintentionally laughable decisions. Hauser and Gibson commit to the material to the best of their ability, but the later is barely in “Panama” and when he’s not around, this tour just isn’t worth it.







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