Day of the Panther (1988)

PLOT: A member of a secret sect of martial artists must infiltrate a ruthless crime lord's vast empire. MUST. It's his only choice in life as a result of Australia's rigid caste system.

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Writer: Peter West, David Groom, Brian Trenchard-Smith
Cast: Edward John Stazak, John Stanton, James Richards, Michael Carman, Paris Jefferson, Linda Megier

The random, nameless henchman is arguably the most disposable element in the action film. His primary on-screen function is to get tossed, kicked, punched, or otherwise maimed in some quick and decisive fashion by one of the film’s heroes. The visual impacts of most henchmen range from “I’m pretty sure that was a dummy falling off that parking garage” to “I had those same Zubaz pants in high school.” Given the volume of henchmen in these types of movies, the master catalog of quirky appearances is a long one. You can safely add the thugs from 1988’s Day of the Panther to that list. In fact, the scene involving Guy in Boar Mask, Guy in Balding Old Man Mask, and Guy in Skull Mask might be the most memorable part of the movie.

This is the first Australian production we’ve covered and fortunately, we’re in good hands with ace action director Brian Trenchard-Smith at the helm. Does the film offer anything besides thugs in hilarious masks chasing a woman around a dilapidated industrial park for 15 minutes? That depends on how you feel about secret martial arts sects whose disciples mark their new status by branding themselves with a smoking hot iron. Members of the Order of the Panthers are subject to vigorous training, zen mastery of the self, and a highly stringent code of ethical behavior. Did we mention burning themselves with a fucking iron? I've done some weird stuff to fit in, but that's on another level.

As evidenced by recent graduates Linda Anderson (Megier) and Jason Blade (Stazak) the Panthers are also fond of high-waisted pants and obnoxious sunglasses. Introduced into the sect by Linda’s law enforcement father, William (Stanton), the pair immediately dives into the world of covert operations by conducting surveillance on a drug deal. Unfortunately, the deal goes all kinds of bad and their involvement raises the suspicions of a Perth crimelord named Zukor (Carman). Blade is forced to retreat into the background while Linda is pursued by Zukor’s hoodlums, led by the sleazy but well-dressed Baxter (Richards).

Before long, Blade has no choice but to infiltrate Zukor’s gang to right the wrongs. The authorities have no choice but to tail this rogue agent with bumbling detectives, because if there’s one element every martial arts movie needs, it’s painfully unfunny pursuit scenarios with middle-aged actors. After Blade beats the shit out of some of his employees at a marina while looking for work, and later shows up at his yacht without warning, Zukor takes a liking to the young upstart. I took virtually the same route to land my first job in the financial services industry.

Answering the bell as our fresh-faced, Miami Vice-aping hero is Edward John Stazak as Jason Blade. He’s 50% lothario, 20% Richard Norton wannabe, and 30% sportsjackets. When he’s not rocking a tight-fitting blazer, he’s swimming. When he’s not swimming, he’s at William’s gym, but isn’t wearing a tight-fitting blazer. Are you getting all this? He’s supposed to be really slick or something. His personality is so magnetic that during their first meeting, William’s foxy niece, Gemma (Jefferson) puts on a seductive dance routine for Blade in the gym. It’s set to music blaring from a boombox. She just can’t help herself!

The film is chock-full of fight film cliches -- an overly intercut climax, broken halves of a broom handle as weapon, to name a couple -- but Trenchard-Smith’s deft direction and penchant for visual quirks give the action scenes creative heft despite the humdrum fight choreography. Angles are carefully selected, the fights are given visual room to breathe, and shots are well-composed. Stazak acquits himself rather well during these scenes, showing flexibility and form in his kicks, and the stuntmen sell for him appropriately. Baxter is a solid counterpart as well; he has virtually the same blazer fetish, but also carries physical menace. Despite the logical build of tension between these characters, however, their climactic fight didn’t quite scratch the itches.

At the end of the day, there is so much that is right with this film on paper: the admirable action direction, the 1980s fashion, the weird Halloween masks, the obsession with physical fitness at the height of aerobics craze, and a completely unnecessary backstory about a secret sect of Australian martial artists training in Hong Kong. It’s (almost) all there. Unfortunately, the narrative waffles a lot. The cops trailing Blade added nothing and Zukor was stereotypical villainfiller. Worst of all, Stazak’s version of Blade isn’t nearly as charismatic or cool as the characters around him would lead us to believe.

Due to my prior exposure to the work of Brian Trenchard-Smith, my expectations for Day of the Panther ran rather high. A cheesy 1980s martial arts flick helmed by the dude who did Turkey Shoot, The Man from Hong Kong, and BMX Bandits? A can’t-miss proposition if there ever was one. However, the film gets bogged down in cliches, bad puns, middling comedy, and over-the-top hero worship. Given that a sequel was filmed the same year, presumably the hope was that this would turn into a long-running Jason Blade franchise. Unfortunately, despite his obvious athletic ability and a good look, Stazak seemed stiff and unnatural when trying to play the suave leading man. A bit more seasoning in smaller roles before this one could have done wonders for a film centered on the supposed magnetism of its lead character. Mostly average film with occasional glimmers of fun and weirdness.



Private Wars (1993)

PLOT: An inner city neighborhood is being destroyed by the colluding forces of greed and violence. Can a burnout ex-cop and a community organizer with dreams of the White House save them? (Not Barack Obama, but that’s a good guess).

Director: John Weidner
Writers: Ken Lamplugh, John Weidner
Cast: Steve Railsback, Dan Tullis Jr., Stuart Whitman, Michael Champion, Holly Floria, James Lew, Vince Murdocco, John Salvitti, Art Camacho


One could say that lately, I’ve been on the fence. Wishy-washy. Running hot and cold and feeling like the title of Natalie Imbruglia’s only American hit single, which if I remember correctly, was “No Scrubs.” In any case, when you’re trying to fix your critical eye on a cohesive theme -- in this case, martial arts films of the 1980s and 90s with Western actors -- your approach can erode quickly if you’re not careful. One Van Damme movie here, a Jet Li movie there, and before you know it, you’re just another dude on the Internet bitching about Michael Bay movies and the glory days of Steven Seagal and DMX team-ups.

So it’s with some trepidation that I roll out a review of Private Wars, a 1993 PM Entertainment film directed by Ring of Fire and Deadly Bet editor John Weidner. It features James Lew as a main bad guy, Art Camacho, Vince Murdocco, and even Donnie Yen’s bro-ham John Salvitti in a guest role. All the stars would appear to be aligned, so what’s missing? A martial arts hero to rule them all.

Which is exactly what the Jackson Heights, Los Angeles neighborhood at the center of our story needs. No more than a half-dozen gang members pretty much run things. They terrorize business owners, destroy bodegas with grenade launchers, and worse yet, they blare generic golden-age rap music from boomboxes with complete impunity. Community organizer Mo Williams (Tullis Jr.) is fed up with the violent behavior, and tries to rally the locals to take back their neighborhood.

They feel helpless though. They’re average citizens and they’re not trained for this kind of effort. Instead, they’re fleeing the violent neighborhood in droves, which is exactly what evil land developer Alexander Winters (Whitman) wants. By financing the local gang to terrorize the locals, he’s paving the way for the replacement of residential property with a massive expansion of commercial space. Since we can’t have a DTV action movie without police corruption, Police Chief Carter (Champion) is also on the Winters payroll.

Out of options and presiding over a terrified citizenry, Williams turns to the one man he knows he can trust -- Jack Manning, played by veteran actor Steve Railsback. Unfortunately for the community of Jackson Heights, Manning is a shell of his former self. After being framed by dirty cops eight years ago, he was booted from the police force for his unorthodox undercover work. He’s replaced his tools of craft and cunning with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, and now works as an unreliable alcoholic private investigator. Can Manning flip the switch and clean up the community? Or will he continue to drink himself to death while firing his gun at rats crawling over his day-old donuts? (Not trying to spin a metaphor -- this actually happened).

This was a pleasant surprise. PM Entertainment built its brand on a workmanlike approach to action scenes, and Private Wars is but another example of its capacity for bombast on a budget. The sequences here range from creative to insane to completely zany. One sequence finds a garbage man chained to the front of his truck and driven a through the streets at high speeds. In a brief scene from his days on the force, Manning slams a surveillance van through a newstand, then a fruit stand, then a telephone booth... with a police officer hanging on his hood. In possibly the most cringe-worthy scene, a gang member is forced to eat chili peppers at gunpoint. That the gang retaliated by destroying a bodega later that night almost seems reasonable when considering the pepper’s likely effects in the gang member’s bathroom.

Even in the absence of a logical context for martial arts, Weidner finds a way to place his martial arts actors in positions where they can show their skills. In limited but significant screen time, street toughs played by Murdocco and Salvitti tangle with Manning during their shared time in a jail cell. Our hero not only beats up both men, but he wins their respect and their help in the story’s climactic confrontation with Winters’s goons. Above all others, though, James Lew’s turn as the villainous Obata gets the most exposure. He’s built up throughout the story as Winters’ most fearsome asset, and his look, particularly in the final scenes, is superb. Some villains might opt for ill-fitting suits or generic denim as they head into battle. Obata? He goes with a silk shirt and a black leather trenchcoat because he’s going to get a high-end steak dinner afterwards. It didn’t turn out that way, obviously, but points to Lew for positive thinking and snazzy dressing.

Steve Railsback is no Loren Avedon, but he fits in comfortably as the hero of the story. His character arc from the gutter to redemption is nothing original, but it inspires the necessary sympathy to invest in the larger story. More than that, Railsback has the dramatic chops to play each aspect of his character convincingly, especially the extremes. When we see him get hit in the stomach, vomit on the attacker’s shoes, and then slam his head through a table in response, we buy it. When Manning pieces his life together and starts cleaning up the streets, we believe it. When he puts the moves on the attractive younger sister of a deceased shop owner, we accept it but only because it’s a fictional movie.


It doesn’t feature any of PM’s tried and true leading martial arts stars on the level of Don Wilson or Gary Daniels, but Private Wars still brandishes a cadre of recognizable faces from the glory days of DTV action. Weidner and company achieve some really cool visuals during the action sequences, Railsback heads up a solid group of memorable performances, and the film even packs some light comedy for the kids. Is it a martial arts film, per se? Probably not, but PM Entertainment was known for blurring the lines in the name of accessible action entertainment. If you’re looking for an underseen gem from their vaults, this is recommended viewing.


Netflix, Amazon, EBay, YouTube.

5 / 7

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