“Panama,” the latest offering from The Mel Gibson Movie of the Month Club, is the sort of instantly disposable action-thriller that wears its cynicism on its sleeve while laboring to grab attention with quick-cut visuals. Those combine with more gratuitous nudity than you can shake a stick at — without, it should be noted, any sticks — to goose a narrative that is tediously predictable when not borderline incoherent. It is notable primarily for the presence of Cole Hauser, star of TV’s phenomenally popular “Yellowstone,” who earns his top billing by doing most of the heavy lifting for his sporadically glimpsed but frequently heard co-star.
In terms of facilitating a transition from television to features, “Panama” may do more for Hauser than, say, “Macho Callahan” ever did for David Janssen. Hauser fully commits to his role as Becker, an ex-Marine who free-lances for the CIA, using his macho charm, intimidating snarl, and effortlessly authoritative physicality to great effect. Better still, he’s able to convincingly express just enough soulfulness to sell the cliché of a hard guy reduced to teary and boozy mourning after an unbearable tragedy — in this case, the death of his wife — before he’s recruited to shake off the blues and deal with bad guys by any means necessary.
Trouble is, Hauser can barely hold up his share of the bargain whenever he’s on screen opposite Gibson, even when the latter tones down, slightly, his propensity for wild-eyed, crazy-vibes scenery-chewing. Fortunately for Hauser, if not the viewer, Gibson pops up only sporadically throughout “Panama” after his character, a fast-talking CIA operative known as Stark, convinces Becker to quit passing out drunk every day on his wife’s grave and head down to Central America to negotiate a top-secret arms deal. Even so, Gibson still manages to frequently upstage Hauser while simply serving as a lively off-screen narrator.
“Let me tell you,” Gibson announces by way of introduction while an on-screen title helpfully establishes the year as 1989, “there’s nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than taking out the bad guys for the Red, White and Blue.” And then we’re teased with a scene in which Becker drags himself out of bed and does just that. But then director Mark Neveldine (“Crank,” “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”), working from a script credited to William Barber and Daniel Adams, flashes back a few days to set up the plot.
Just what is “Panama” all about? It has something to do with Becker’s efforts to purchase a Soviet helicopter from drug dealers and corrupt Panamanian officials before the U.S. Military launches Operation Just Cause to topple the even more corrupt dictator Manuel Noriega. And it has something else to do with a CIA plot to devise “creative, cheap new ways to fund the Contras” — like, buying Soviet helicopters — in their guerilla campaign to overthrow the Sandanista government of Nicaragua. (For those who don’t remember, such CIA activity was technically illegal in 1989, and the Contras were much more, ahem, controversial than their depiction here suggests.)
But Neveldine often — very often — appears to place more importance on finding excuses for chase scenes that range from exciting to extraneous (notably, a pointless motorcycle race through the jungle), and leering over various unclothed cuties kept on tap by Enrique (Mauricio Henao), a well-heeled but unabashedly sleazy arms dealer and money launderer with a well-nigh insatiable cocaine habit. But wait, there’s more: Becker and femme fatale Camila (Kiara Liz) get physical during lengthy sex scenes that recall nothing so much as the direct-to-video erotic thrillers that provided gainful employment for actors like Wings Hauser — Cole Hauser’s dad — back in the 1980s and ’90s. Insert joke about carrying on family traditions here.
One thing leads to another, at a pace that somehow feels frenetic and ponderous all at once, until Gibson’s Stark puts down the phone, raises himself from his office chair, and promises, “OK, this is where I come in to clean things up.” And really, not a moment too soon.