Day of the Panther, 1987
As Australian Kung Fu movies go, Day of the Panther is… the one I’ve seen.
It’s bland. Not atrociously bad. Not especially good. Just sits there. Clichés, tropes, a few marginally decent fights, nothing else.
Begins with a voiceover from William Anderson (John Stanton) telling us about how he was the first Westerner ever to be inducted into the “ancient and secret order of Panthers”, a Chinese kung fu cult, and how his daughter Linda and JASON BLADE! (coughcoughcough) became only the second Westerners ever to etc., etc.
So the Panthers, seemingly centered in Hong Kong, studiously ignored westerners for over a hundred years. Curious, as HK was a creation of the British Empire, and so much of its success was dependent on both western trade and western culture. The Triad gangs got started partly because groups of Eurasian men felt that they could not be accepted in either culture (this is gross oversimplification, before somebody complains). Yes, Chinese culture was (and continues to be, in some ways) highly xenophobic and resistant to any outside influence. (This is why China does not practice capitalism, but capitalism “with Chinese characteristics” — because to just take it as is would be to admit that Chinese culture is not superior to everything else, everywhere, in every way; but add “Chinese characteristics”, and you’ve instantly made it better, and Chinese.) Still, kung fu was no secret, and even “secret societies” took in a few westerners (of the right sort, of course) long before the 1960s. So what were the Panthers doing all that time? I think I have now given this more thought than the writers did.
The induction ceremony is a hoot. The actor playing Anderson clearly speaks his Chinese phonetically, and whoever coached him didn’t get across the idea of tones very clearly. Or at all. (I couldn’t even tell if he was supposed to be speaking Cantonese or Mandarin. That’s sort of like not being able to tell if he was trying to speak French or Italian.) The actress playing his daughter has, alas, the sort of face that just doesn’t look intelligent; she spends the ceremony looking befuddled. JASON BLADE! (Edward John Stazak, whose only IMDb credits are this movie and its sequel), in comparison, is reasonably credible here. The amount of smoke arising from his forearm as he brands himself(!), though, is not.
Turns out JASON BLADE! and Linda are also special agents for Her Majesty in some form; apparently police, though it’s not especially clear (the most precise naming we get is “Hong Kong’s Special Branch”; Special Branch of what is never explained). They’re partners, and work undercover together, and Dad’s voiceover ends with saying “Then came the night that would ultimately change all our lives,” and you just know that Linda’s going to achieve “hungry ghost” status before the second act begins.
I mean, she’s the daughter, the partner, a girl, she doesn’t get the backward-looking voiceover, and her name’s not JASON BLADE!. Why they didn’t name her Dead Meat and have done with it, I don’t know.
Granted, the movie doesn’t kack her immediately, and in fact gives her a lengthy action scene in which she defends herself ably — I had been fully expecting that, despite her Panther training, she was going to fold, as girls in western kung fu movies frequently do. But no, she fights off three or four assailants in an extended sequence, killing at least two of them, and only dies when caught off guard by another man, who knifes her while she’s in a defenseless position.
On the other hand, she does die because she didn’t do what JASON BLADE! told her to do, which was to sit tight and wait for him. No, she had to go out on her own, “investigating”, and because she didn’t follow the dictates of the masculine (but babyfaced) hero, she pays the price of all expendable characters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In “Hong Kong” (adequately impersonated by a few sets in Perth, Australia, and some stock establishing shots in the beginning — although the stock shots don’t really scream “HONG KONG!”, they could be HK from unusual angles, or they could be Perth), Linda and JASON BLADE! sneak into a Chinese restaurant (of course!) and take pictures of a drug deal going down between an irritating, doughy-faced Aussie and a couple of old Chinese men. They’re discovered, pursued, and lose the camera (into a pot of noodles; one wonders if Jackie Chan saw this movie at some point before making Crime Story, though probably not, and he did a lot more with the gag than anyone on this movie even thought about), and while all the bodyguards are pursuing them, the doughy-faced Aussie, whom we’ll come to know as Baxter (“Baxter”? The best name they could come up with for the head henchman was Baxter!?), blows away the two older Chinese men, taking both the money and the drugs and hightailing it to the airport.
If you hadn’t already worked out that this movie is shallow, this sequence does the math for you. First, the dialog amongst the criminals while Linda and JASON BLADE! are taking pictures is banal and repetitive in the extreme. Most of it was clearly looped in later, and there is little purpose to it, other than to establish (five or six times) that Baxter wants to pay only five hundred thousand dollars. He does finally get bargained up to six hundred and they hit an agreement. The agreement is for an ongoing deal. The Chinese Triads (not so named, but one presumes) will supply Baxter and his organization with drugs every two months for six hundred thousand.
(Side note: Was HK really a central distribution point for drug running? I mean, okay, maybe for getting drugs into the mainland, but to Australia? Wouldn’t it be more practical to deal directly with drug producers in Thailand, and elsewhere? Again, I’m thinking about this more than the writers ever did.)
Then JASON BLADE! and
Dead Meat Linda are discovered, and Baxter whips out a silenced pistol, shooting his suppliers: one in the forehead, the other in the neck.
So, okay, there was a security breach, but come on! The breach was exposed by the Triads. Is it really a good idea to whack your suppliers? I can’t imagine other suppliers are going to line up to deal with you after that. “Yeah, Mr. Baxter, we know you blew away your last business partners, but it was understandable — after all, they very helpfully exposed a couple of police who were spying on the deal, and you were mad, and people do things when caught off guard that, under calmer light, they wouldn’t; we’re sure you’ve learned an Important Lesson here, and have no worries about any such incident ever happening again.” Further, it is clear that the Australian operation needs steady supply, not a one-off deal. (The movie, on the other hand, only needs the one-off, so this action makes sense in terms of the plot, in a meta sort of way.)
There are no consequences to the killing off of these two old, apparently powerful triads. Once dead, they and their organization never affect the story again. (OK, there is one piece of throw-away dialog telling us that the killings started a Triad war in Hong Kong, but this makes little sense other than as a way of excusing the total lack of consequence within the story.)
So, yes, not the deepest, most thought-out movie of all time.
Linda pursues Baxter to Perth, while JASON BLADE! remains in Hong Kong, so that Linda can be killed off cleanly. No, really, there’s no actual reason given for him to stay behind, it’s only so that his partner can go off alone, die stupidly, and give him motivation for the rest of the movie. She calls him (on his 1987 car phone!) (which actually just looks like they put a store-bought regular corded phone into the car, and tried to shoot it so that it looked like it was part of the not-luxurious car’s standard equipment) to tell him that she’s followed the target, but not sure where the consignment of drugs is, and that the local cops are apparently clueless (oh, if she had only lived long enough to find out!). JASON BLADE! tells her to lay low, he’ll fly into Perth tomorrow and join her, but she doesn’t want to lose track of the bad guys, doesn’t promise much, and hangs up.
The sequence where Linda meets her demise is actually kind of impressive. Somebody gave a damn about this movie, and it shows here, if nowhere else. The (rather extended) pursuit through, over, and around a warehouse by three menacing hulks in animal masks (the first one we meet is a very hairy gent in a pig mask, and we even get a couple of POV shots from inside the mask, complete with echo-y breathing foley) is intercut with JASON BLADE! arriving in Perth. And while the sequence is longish, it doesn’t flag. The fighting isn’t hugely impressive, but neither is it embarrassing. They milk the abandoned warehouse location for LOTS of action gags. Nothing huge or spectacular, but it never gets too repetitive. JASON BLADE!’s arrival is spliced in at just the right moments, counterpoints the action going on elsewhere, and establishes a few things.
First, he’s being watched. By two Aussie cops. Who are our film’s Odious Comic Relief, with supersized emphasis on the “odious”. One of them is like Ned Beatty from Superman: The Movie, only without one ounce of Beatty’s talent, comic timing, or the John Williams-scored humorous tubas in the background. The other one I have no convenient analogy for, he’s such a boring stock straightman. Flinders is a by-the-book idiot who thinks that wearing a fedora in 1987 qualifies as “plain clothes” and will help him blend in and not be noticed. He gets flustered and angry at his partner’s incompetence, while he’s not noticeably better himself. And again, no talent or knack for timing are apparent in his performance.
The only saving grace with regard to these two twits is that the director, editor, and producers did not fall in love with their komedik stylings. They are a part of the movie, and never just vanish, more’s the pity, but there are no extraneous scenes of them doing their schtick that serve no other purpose. What is in the film is there because removing it would harm the logic of the story (such as it is).
Second, from the OCR’s dialog, we gather that JASON BLADE! is a well-known Triad assassin.
It’s a necessary piece of business, but it’s handled so badly that they might as well not have done it.
The local drug lord, it comes to pass, has lots of police and judges in his pocket (though we never see any of these, we’re only told about them). So JASON BLADE!’s status as a top member of Special Branch is known only to one member of the Aussie police (as we’ll find out later), and his cover story is that he’s a Triad assassin, because the Kowloon Triads owed him a favor(!!!).
At no point does any of this make one damn bit of sense. JASON BLADE! always goes under his own name. (Because, you know, his name is JASON BLADE!, which is just too frakking cool not to use, right? Right?) Yet (almost) nobody knows who he really is.
Dead Meat Linda was under an assumed name, so that the local cops wouldn’t know she was Anderson’s daughter right away. (Did I neglect to mention this? After Anderson left HK Special Branch, he retired to Perth and now owns a fitness center. Also a very Chinese-style home that is more like a mansion, or at least a compound, than a house. Retiring from Special Branch nets you a good bit more than a gold watch, I guess.) Everybody seems to know about the “secret” order of the Panthers, and to know that JASON BLADE! is one of them, and also that Anderson is one (it doesn’t seem clear if anyone figured out that Linda was, or not; at first, it goes unmentioned, but later in the movie, the cops do seem to know, yet nobody ever really cares), and don’t put it together that they’re pals and working together. It only works if you don’t think about it at all, and accept that this sort of thing just happens in these sorts of movies. JASON BLADE! is who he is, everybody knows who he is, but nobody knows what he is, except when they do, until it becomes necessary for him to be “revealed”.
And here we are, almost 1500 words into this review, and I haven’t even really gotten to the bad guy. It ain’t doughy-faced Baxter, he’s the henchman. No, the bad guy is… Richard E. Grant!
OK, it’s not Richard E. Grant, but wouldn’t you say he looks uncannily similar? An aged, eerily skeletal Richard E. Grant? I couldn’t stop thinking it anytime he was on screen. This guy is possibly the best actor in the production. He’s not good, but he gives a performance, and seems to have had fun hamming it up, while knowing when to dial back and let quietness be menacing.
The other way you know it isn’t Richard Grant is that at no point does he recite Hamlet to zoo animals in between slugs from a wine bottle. Probably just an oversight, though.
This main bad guy, whom everyone knows is the main bad guy, is named ZUKOR. Probably because "Snidely Whiplash" was already trademarked. And you want to know how truly evil he is? Not only does he run drugs, not only does he control Perth’s prostitution trade and illicit gambling rings, not only is his name ZUKOR… no, the capper is when we’re told that he even makes money from his legitimate businesses!!! Yes, it is stated in such a tone that we are meant to understand that this makes Zukor much worse than he otherwise would be.
Sigh. I only wish I were joking.
But JASON BLADE!, Real Man of Genius, has a plan.
He’s going to ask Zukor for a job.
He saunters into one of Zukor’s cover businesses, a boat dealership, and insults Zukor, Zukor’s salesmen, the business, and the hired muscle.
Then, once the hired muscle try to throw his carcass to the curb, he beats the ever-loving snot out of them.
Every single one.
(Except Baxter, who’s out “taking the Trans Am for a spin”; I cannot possibly make this excuse lamer than the movie does.)
Then he walks away, telling Zukor over his shoulder where he’s staying, and that he’d like work as a bodyguard.
Again, in this action scene, there is evidence that at least a couple of people involved in the production gave a damn. The fight scene is choreographed, and the choreography includes taking the camera and shot composition into consideration. It is, as with the earlier scene with Linda, reasonably impressive, once you account for the obvious limitations of the production. Clearly, they did not have a huge budget, an extended shooting schedule (especially as this was shot back-to-back with the sequel), or the most experienced crew ever.
I’ve left out something. See, Anderson didn’t just have a daughter, he has a niece, too. One who’s a ton cuter than his own progeny, and instantly hits it off with JASON BLADE! (but of course). There’s no actual chemistry between the two actors, and the attraction is not earned at all by the story. They meet, exchange a few words, she’s gone for a few scenes, then she all but throws herself on top of him.
But, back to where we were, more or less. JASON BLADE! is pulled into police HQ, and the big guy on precinct knows who he is, or believes him without a shred of proof, it’s not too clear which is the case. The get a little exposition out of the way, then JASON BLADE! departs, gets a call at his hotel, and is told by Zukor himself that a boat will pick him up.
This leads to more komedy.
JASON BLADE! is picked up by Baxter in an inboard pleasure craft. (To the tune of intensely uninspired synthesizer music. This sequence is the most Miami Vice part of the movie, and it’s bad.) His two tails, Beatty-clone and Flinders, decide to get a boat to follow him. They, of course, requisition a komikly tiny fishing boat with an outboard motor. And they don’t just get it and use it, no. They bumble into it, they bumble over which direction to go, they bumble starting the motor, they bumble it into going backwards, because going forwards wouldn’t be komikal, and…
Somehow, I managed not to shove razorblades into my eyeballs or do violence to my computer or the DVD. Don’t ask me how. The bits showing the bumblers are short, but intensely painful.
So JASON BLADE! gets to Zukor, who asks him if he likes the party. “Is that what this is?” he “quips”. Zukor laughs, “You’re sharp, Blade. I like your style.”
May I just point out that somebody got paid to write that. That somebody, in fact, was probably very, very proud of giving action hero JASON BLADE! the action hero name JASON BLADE!, and then doubly proud of coming up with that “clever” little exchange.
I need a drink.
(Whoever put “I like your style” in there ought to have been staked to the ground, naked, near an anthill, his face and nether regions coated with honey. Or at least had his payday reduced drastically.) (Given that no-brainer cliché line, let me assure you, the potential viewer, that at no point in this film do the villain and the hero exchange the almost-as-hoary lines “Is that a threat?” “No. It’s a promise.” That, I guess, would not be JASON BLADE!’s style.)
So Zukor gives him a task: deliver a parcel to a particular place, and pick up a briefcase in return. JASON BLADE! asks what he’ll be carrying, and Zukor proves that he doesn’t trust JASON BLADE! at all by telling him that the parcel has smack, the briefcase has five hundred grand. You get no points for guessing that both of those are lies.
Baxter isn’t happy with this setup. This is his sort of task, and JASON BLADE! seems to be moving in on his turf. Oh, what drama! Oh, what pathos!
JASON BLADE! drives to a warehouse to make the exchange (followed by the Komikal Kops), but it’s a setup. The briefcase contains mostly cut paper, not money. So a fight ensues, of course. As the fight goes on, the Komikal Kops try to get into the warehouse, but the door is locked! So, as only happens in bad action movies with delusions of komedy, just as JASON BLADE! finishes wiping the floor with his adversaries and leaves, the Komikal Kops komandeer a forklift and krash through the warehouse wall. (They don’t know how to run the forklift, as if you didn’t already know.)
The Kops get to arrest a bunch of bruised, battered, barely-conscious thugs, and JASON BLADE! stalks back to Zukor all pissed, because he wasn’t told what the deal really was. (The Kops get the package and realize that it’s corn starch, so it was a bad deal from every direction.) Zukor laughs it off, saying it was a test, and that JASON BLADE! has now earned his trust. After all, he could have just waltzed off with the drugs and/or the money.
And even though there’s a chunk more plot to go, I am tired of recapping it. So, cut to the end, because there is something odd about the climactic fight scenes.
JASON BLADE! does not, repeat does not, square off against Zukor. The final fight is between JASON BLADE! and Baxter the head henchman. Anderson gets to chase after Zukor and hold him at gunpoint. The mentor takes on the head baddie, and the hero gets the henchman.
Man, that’s weird. And there was no especial reason for it, either, except that the actor playing Zukor would pretty clearly shatter with just a punch or two, so an actual fight wouldn’t be believable. But still, little or no confrontation, Zukor just gets handed off to the mentor character, who you would think would want revenge on the guy who actually killed his daughter, Baxter.
Nope, it was just a muddle. In any proper action movie, the protagonist is the one who resolves the conflict and deals with the root of the problem. That’s the reason he’s the protagonist — it’s his problem, he has to deal with it (or fail to do so). And the root of the problem here is definitely meant to be Zukor. So, we the audience already have a hard time identifying with JASON BLADE! because, really, there’s not much character there, and his only motivation is his partner’s death (and the actor has about two expressions, smirking and grinning). And then, at the climax, where we’re supposed to be rooting for him the most, he’s not the guy who solves the problem. He beats on the guy who actually killed his partner, sure, but henchmen can be replaced.
It’s just unsatisfying.
The end credits make a promise common to 1980s cheese-fests: “Jason Blade will return in Strike of the Panther!” Before I checked the IMDb preparing this review, I assumed this was fully in that tradition, meaning that no such movie ever got made.
(The example that leaps immediately to mind is the remarkably good The Sword and the Sorcerer, which promised at the end that its hero, Talon, would return in Tales of the Ancient Empire. That movie never got made, although Albert Pyun lensed another movie under that title this year , I’m not entirely clear how direct the connection is going to be. Plus, it’s Albert Pyun, who has made precisely one good movie in his career, namely The Sword and the Sorcerer.)
But I was wrong. Strike of the Panther was, apparently, shot back to back with this feature. And given one or two of the IMDb user reviews, I’m now keen to track down a copy. This movie is comprised of banal, tired cliches pasted together with hoary genre tropes, with little or nothing to recommend it. The sequel, if the the reviews are to be trusted, is certifiably insane.
It’s actually rather interesting to look through the cast and crew list on IMDb and see who continued or went on to a productive career from here, and who didn’t.
As noted, the star, Edward John Stazak, never worked again outside of this film and its sequel. And that makes perfect sense. He can fight, but outside of the combat scenes, his expressions run the gamut from naive grin to smirk. His (highly inappropriate) aviator sunglasses show more range.
However, the villain, Zukor, has a longish list of credits.
One half of the OCR duo only did these two movies, while Hat Guy started with this movie, and launched a respectable little acting career.
The mentor character, Anderson, had a respectable career both before and after.
Anderson’s niece, Gemma, whose only asset here is that she’s moderately attractive, also went on to a respectable career, including a recurring role on Xena: Warrior Princess.
The director has done lots of work.
The actor playing Baxter has a much sparser resume, one other acting role in the 1990s, but also did stunts on a few other films.
The woman who played Linda didn’t do much acting (understandably, I’m sorry to say), but did do more stunt work, though not a large amount.
This movie came to me as part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Drive-In Movie Classic pack. The sequel, alas, is not included on the set, nor any other that I have. It’s on my list, though. Somewhere far below every Criterion Kurosawa disc, well below Sword of Doom, and a little above Showgirls.
OK, maybe a notch or two below Showgirls. But on the list, even so.