Cole Hauser and Mel Gibson Star in Guilty Pleasures Eighties Actioner

Panama is a late eighties actioner loaded with drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll. Cole Hauser and Mel Gibson star as CIA spooks negotiating an arms deal in the narco-state before the US takedown of Manuel Noriega. The entire film feels like an episode of Miami Vice on steroids. Scantily clad women with spritzed bangs and open-shirted drug lords in pastel pants kill for the almighty dollar. The gunplay is poorly edited, but I got a guilty pleasure kick out of the sordid and bloody narrative.

Panama opens in 1989 Texas with Stark (Gibson) recruiting a drunken and despondent James Becker (Hauser) for a black ops mission. Still grieving over his murdered wife, Becker is an elite ex-marine with a nose for navigating dangerous situations. He’s briefed by another spy, Hank Burns (Charlie Weber), also undercover in the Central American country. The CIA wants to clandestinely buy a Soviet helicopter from corrupt government officials. The US was illegally funneling arms to the Nicaraguan Contras.


Becker heads to Panama pretending to be a casino floor boss. He meets the coke-snorting, orgy-loving Enrique Rodriguez (Mauricio Hénao). The underling to Colonel Justines (Néstor Rodulfo), Rodriguez has already been paid a fortune for the chopper. Becker gets a grisly reality check when he embeds with the Contras and their hardcore leader (Julio Ramos Velez). The situation gets even muddier when Becker falls for the beautiful but dangerous Camila (Kiara Liz). Betrayals and greed lead to a murderous outcome as the US invasion of Panama looms.

Panama Has Juxtaposing Scenes

Panama sets the stage with slick opening credits and an intermittent voice-over from Mel Gibson’s Stark. On screen titles introduce the ensemble cast as the plot thickens. There’s a lot going on here. The elaborate storyline is continually fueled by the characters’ raging libidos. Becker could teach a master class in the horizontal tango. The sex scenes are juxtaposed by a brutal reality check. Rape and indiscriminate killings of entire families are used to terrorize. The CIA and DEA play both sides of the conflict to achieve their own goals.

The film has two glaring problems. The first is the treatment of women. The female characters are basically one-note sex objects. They’re the pawns of evil men used for pleasure and bargaining chips. Camila spends most of her screen time in naked romps. The female roles needed more sophistication. I understand that eighties drug lords and corrupt Panamanian officials weren’t lobbying for equal gender rights. Panama accurately depicts their contemptible behavior. But the filmmakers should have a modern sensibility and at least try to give the female supporting cast a sliver of depth.

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Panama’s Bizarre Editing

Saban Films

Several key scenes have bizarre editing. Director Mark Neveldine (Gamer, The Crank Franchise) makes odd choices with the gunplay and chases. There’s a choppy flow to the violence that stands out from the rest of the film. This is unusual because Neveldine is known for his sharp camera work and editing. Maybe I missed the artistic intent, but the action looks uneven.

Panama gets a slight recommendation on pure entertainment value. The film has significant issues. But the story, time period, and dirty politics had me fully engaged throughout. Miami Vice fans will certainly be on board.

Panama is produced by Yale Productions, LB Entertainment, and SSS Entertainment. It will have a VOD and theatrical release on March 18th from Saban Films.

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Julian Roman
(1479 Articles Published)

Julian Roman has been with Movieweb for nearly twenty years. An avid film buff, he feels lucky to have interviewed and written extensively about Hollywood’s greatest talents. In his spare time he plays guitar, treasures good company, and always seeks new adventures.

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