Thursday, November 13, 2014

Friday, November 7, 2014

Oddball Film Report: THE PANTHER SQUAD (1985)

Note: This review was originally written for Video Cheese, a feature of www.jabootu.net. It has been published here first by the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.

THE PANTHER SQUAD (1985 - color)
"A secret agent and her all-girl commando squad must defeat a terrorist organization threatening the future of space flight."

   I haven't seen a lot of Female Commando movies. In fact, I could count them out on one hand and have a finger or two left over (let's see, ANGELS BRIGADE, HUSTLER SQUAD, and now THE PANTHER SQUAD. That's funny, I thought I had one other knocking about here somewhere. I suppose I could count a couple of the Andy Sidaris movies, but I'm not sure they qualify). I seem to've drawn the most tame of the genre, somehow. For a genre noted for it's nudity, the only one of those three to feature any -and it's minimal- is HUSTLER SQUAD. Not that I'm complaining. HUSTLER SQUAD was good enough not to need it, ANGELS BRIGADE was so stupid it would have been distracting if it had featured anything that gritty.

   THE PANTHER SQUAD falls in between. It's just as wacky and stupid and inept as ANGELS BRIGADE, maybe more so! On the other hand, it's almost endearing because it doesn't waste time with a women-besting-the-men-around-them plot so many of these films feature. It's refreshingly straight-forward and charmingly old-fashioned in playing to the expectations of 60's era spy movies! Stupid, yes, but a lot more fun than anything from Andy Sidaris -the possible exception being MIAMI EXPRESS (which, like today's film, also featured Sybil Danning), although that film still suffers the Sidaris curse of being much longer than it's material warrants. THE PANTHER SQUAD runs a much more friendly 77 minutes!

   I'm no expert on Sybil Danning. I know that she came to visibility as a nude model for men's rags in the 70's, and she later branched into seedy exploitation movies before moving into more mainstream exploitation movies. She became a familiar figure to fans of 80's action movies. Beyond that, I couldn't offer much personal information. 

   Tall, blonde, and possessing a certain screen presence, she was able to keep working after she decided getting naked all the time wasn't dignified. Frankly, I never found her all that attractive as a woman or compelling as a performer. That's not to sell her short, though. In the few films of her's I've seen, she didn't embarrass herself or anything. This film is pretty embarrassing but that's more due to the script. Then again, she did produce the film (credited as "Sybill" Danning, so I assume it's either a typo or she has a sister who owns an extra L).

   The film starts right up as we see a file on a desk marked "Panther Squad" and a tag floating above it reading "Sybil Danning in" and we're given just a few seconds to drink this in. 

   Thinking, I guess, that this was too subtle, they quickly jump to footage of some women on a firing range and huge spinning logo that comes to rest reading THE PANTHER SQUAD. The sheer 80's-ness of everything is established via a really cheap rock/pop tune recorded for the occasion titled "She's Tough and Tender" that plays over the credits, which themselves play over a montage of the shooting range and the women using it (Squad members, but no Sybil yet). None of these women seem to've ever used a firearm before, despite the fact they're supposed to be the best of the best with such things. One poor girl takes aim, her hand and the gun wobbling nervously, and we cut to a close-up of the target which takes a number of pin-point accurate shots.

   The sequence also features a heavy use of a THE FLY-type lens duplicating images of each girl as she takes aim at the camera. It's like some weird hybrid of the openings to The Lucy Show and The Rookies.... For what it's worth, this is the only part of the movie* we'll see in scope, thanks to orange bars across the top and bottom of the screen, matching the color of the titles themselves. 

(*Provided you have the 80's VHS like I do. I have no clue if an actual widescreen release has been issued on DVD.)

   This is classic Jabootu, and as the film unspooled, I found myself wondering if Ken had this one on his review list....

   Credit's over, we see a stock footage rocket launch. Then we see what is supposed to be a TV broadcast for N.O.O.N., the New Organization Of Nations, something they spell out a good three times in just a few seconds! Evidently, this is all taking place in the near future, when every important nation on the planet has set aside their differences and joined together in the unified goal of conquering space. The thing that makes this universal cooperation possible is a device known as "the Space Jeep." 

   I guess the nations still have their own identity, despite this super U.N. set-up they have. It's also nice to see the United States is still in charge, as a N.O.O.N. broadcast focuses on an address by the President of the United States which serves as exposition.

   This whole N.O.O.N. thing is pretty superfluous to the plot, by the way. This sequence is pretty funny, though, as it features a press pool consisting of about six guys, each crammed together before the camera in order to hide the lack of a set it would seem. In fact, the only thing visible beyond them is a black wall, so it has certain uneasy vibe to it, as if these guys are trapped in some other dimension we occasionally cut to. I'm guessing too, that these guys are producers or something, and couldn't act, since these shots are lightning quick. Even so, we get some pretty broad mugging, of the type to make me suspect one of these guys, or three of them, were enemy agents. Furthering this impression is a close-up of one reporter's hands scribbling some unintelligible squiggles -backward! Man, I thought the press today had problems!

   Our backstory in place (the Space Jeep is manned and in orbit now, conquest of space is right around the corner), the transmission is cut into by a terrorist organization calling itself CLEAN SPACE. CLEAN SPACE wants all space exploration called off, although not for any legitimate reason. CLEAN SPACE is an environmental organization, weirdly referencing itself as "anti-pollution commando" and broadcasting from an "ultra-secret" location to claim hijack of the Space Jeep. 


   Ground control tries to regain control of the Space Jeep, but are unable. (They show a few scenes of the Space Jeep, a larger ship than you'd expect to be in the nose of a multi-stage rocket like we're shown. I suspect this is stock footage from a much more expensive space opera -maybe BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, which also featured Sybil Danning, but that's just a guess from a guy who hasn't yet seen BATTLE. Yes, shame on me.)

   The good news is, we have a spare SJ, and a spare pilot. Said pilot is female*, which seems more 60's than 80's to me for some reason. The bad news is that security stinks! A pair of agents are dispatched to get the pilot, and run across a pair of abandoned cars sitting on the isolated stretch of road to the military base where she's stationed (why wouldn't the base drive her to a destination in one of it's own jeeps?). There's no one in evidence anywhere near this "accident," not even a cop, but these crack agents don't even mention this before getting out to push the cars off the side of the road. As expected, they are quickly laid out by a pair of thugs.

(* A female pilot and an experimental space vehicle were also featured in THE AMBUSHERS. Evil organizations trying to hinder the American space program and/or dominate space were also familiar spy movie tropes in the 60's. See such examples as DR. NO, IN LIKE FLINT, LIGHTNING BOLT, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, etc.)

  The thugs steal the agents' car and jackets and then drive to the base and pick up the pilot, who jumps right in without even waiting for the base security guard to check their identification!  (The bad guys aren't much better than the good guys. In one scene seemingly added to fill out the running time, they get their jeep stuck in some sand and all the baddies get out to clear the wheel. Not bothering to post at least one guard of the five or so bodies on hand, the pilot steals one of their guns and takes it on the lam. They catch her, but at the cost of one of their own men, and they don't have that many to spare.)


   Needless to say, she ends up in the hands of CLEAN SPACE, who drug her and film a ransom video of her. Said video is recorded on a yacht we'll be seeing more off.

   With actual government agents proven to be about as useful as an upside-down nest, the authorities call in their super-duper secret agent Ilona (Danning). Ilona has a specially-trained group of female commandos called the Panther Squad. These girls are all really pretty, and that seems to be their only convincing trait as warriors. Even at their best, they come across like a perky high school sorority who got to play laser-tag for an afternoon.

   Still, they're SUPPOSED to be lethal killing machines undergoing the most intense training possible. What we see of this amounts to little more than running around in the woods with a gun, but there are trip-wires and such on the course and one young lovely fails to make the cut. Since they all appear to be fashion models, I'm not sure where the potential recruits are supposed to come from. I suppose they could be WACs, WAVEs, WAFs, Policewomen, etc, but there's nothing to indicate this. Given how simplistic the obstacle course is, maybe they're Las Vegas showgirls*.....



(*That's a gag referring to HELL SQUAD,  a film Ken had reviewed some time back for www.jabootu.com, under the title "Commando Girls". It hit me that might not be quite as obvious to readers of Baker's Log...)

   Ilona has these girls at her disposal, but she's her own agent, so she sets off by herself. She tries to track down the yacht, getting the name of the owner from a contact in the islands. He writes the name Barbara Wiles down on a piece of paper, and I'm pretty sure the handwriting is completely different on the note Ilona is carrying around later! Anyway, her asking around about Barbara* rouses attention from some goons and they jump her in an alley. Needless to say, super agent Ilona makes short work of them.

(* Given movie logic, you'd assume Barbara to be the Blofeld to Ilona's Bond, but Barbara turns out to be a pretty minor character.)

   This fight scene is something you have to see to believe. You know how fights are usually shown from different angles? They don't do that here. One camera records everything from a fixed position. And that, I must admit, could have worked just fine. What makes this stand out is that they try to cheat multiple angles by occasionally blowing up a section of the shot! These are very obvious, very grainy enlargements too, there's no ignoring them! To make it even 'cooler' some of the footage is shown in slow-motion before being repeated at full speed! Wow!

   (I don't recall seeing it during this specific fight, but there's another element I need to mention, which is that action scenes are awash with very obvious edits. Amid a fight, you'll see a splice, and I don't know if that's just to cut together two takes of the action to remove a blooper, or if it has something to do with changing the actors for stunt doubles. It'll go along and there's an obvious splice right in the middle of the action!)

   Ilona sets up shop in the home of one of her fellow agents, the oft-drowsy Frank, who I think is supposed to be a spoof of Matt Helm (I can't say that for sure, but his constant drinking and relaxed nature make me think so). He's played by busy actor Jack Taylor, who some might have seen in THE SEA SERPENT... That's another one I haven't seen yet.... Anyway, he's this film's Felix Leither, and he'll provide Ilona with occasional help (as well as engage in some painfully bad playful banter with our heroine).

   It's about here that Ilona dons her spy outfit, and it's pretty goofy. She wears all black, tight leather. She has unflattering slacks, a form-fitting vest-like affair, these things that look like big opera gloves minus the actual 'glove' part, and studded headband, choker, belt, and what looks to be a holster strap. When she wants to look extra cool, she has sunglasses. The suit is made of tight leather that constantly restricts her kicks and such, adding an extra level of fun. It's like that guy in BLACK DYNAMITE who would flick his foot about 15 inches off the ground and the bad guys would fly back as if they'd been hit in the face, only this isn't supposed to be funny... I don't think. To the film's credit, it never takes itself too seriously so you sort of just roll with the stupidity (conversely, it has enough conviction not to just pass itself off as a spoof).

   Ilona tries to question one of Frank's contacts in a local tavern, but the guy is killed. Before he dies, though, he's able to tell Ilona the name of the yacht, the Lord Byron. The killer can't escape, so he challenges Ilona and a fight scene breaks out. I forgot to mention, Frank has a bodyguard who is this unassuming woman who smokes cigars. When the tussle breaks out, Frank causally stands back as the girls take care of business. The bar-fight scene over, Ilona decides it's time to call in the Panther Squad.

   Frank and Ilona pick up the girls at the local airport and drive them back to Frank's house, where a couple of goons are skulking about. First order of business? Frolic in the big swimming pool, natch!  As the girls play in the water*, the goons make their move. One tries to ambush Frank's bodyguard, who lets the guy have it with a flame-throwing hair-dryer! Very, very U.N.C.L.E., Sister! Right on! 


   In a humorous bit (or it would have been if done a little more subtly) the flaming bad guy rolls around on the lawn as Frank causally reads a paper nearby. He only looks up to wave away some smoke. The other goon makes to shoot our lovely ladies as they have their swim, but a shot rings out and the guy falls from his tree-limb perch. Cut to Frank, his eyes still on his paper, holding a smoking gun aimed at the tree. That was a pretty good gag, I thought.

(*I gotta say bikini scenes like this are one of the reasons I do enjoy 80's movies. While the swimwear is skimpy in the extreme, the girls all look good and aren't artificially busty. They look like real girls, and you don't have to avert your eyes from unsightly tattoos and navel rings and the like. This is pure eye candy, the good stuff that seems so short in supply these days, so enjoy the detour, boys!)

   Next comes the raid on the yacht. Being sexy girls in an action movie, the Squad decides to distract the guards aboard the Lord Byron by wearing their tiny bikinis and windsurfing close to the boat. While the honeys in the water keep all male eyes diverted, a pair of the girls sneak aboard the yacht and engage the two goons on deck in an extremely awkward fight scene. 


   (Extended 80's swimwear moment here. And for the ladies, I'll note the two deckhands are very buff and shirtless during this scene, so there's something for everyone!)

   However, what may be the crown jewel of this sequence, and maybe the movie, is Ilona watching all this from shore with binoculars. The POV silhouette is LITERALLY a cardboard cutout held in front of the camera! It's one of the most hysterical things I've ever seen! (And I followed the film with a couple episodes of Corner Gas!)

   Anyway, the two girls are captured, but that's part of the plan. This allows our heroine to trail the bad guys back to their base camp. The CLEAN SPACE wackos are pulling out, though, so the astronaut lady is moved before she can be rescued. The Squad raids the place before an underling can shoot the bikini captives, though, and we get another splicey action scene before the bad guys make good their escape. Ilona and the girls follow, Frank close behind (he has received a super-special secret-weapon from HQ that Ilona requested, something so awesome it can only be used once). 


   Mysteriously, the two girls who were wearing their bikinis only seconds ago, are now fully dressed!

   There follows more spy antics, including a bit with a helicopter. Much like 007 in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, only nowhere near as convincingly, Ilona takes down the chopper with a single shot! 


   Eventually it becomes known that CLEAN SPACE is in cahoots with a dictator plotting world conquest. It's all done cheap/inept/stupid, but in the end is pretty fun. 

   Oh, and I have to tell you about Ilona's super-secret can-only-be-used-once weapon! It's this big laser pistol that basically does the same as the skeleton beams used by the Martians in Pal's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS! Only here, it looks like the effect was done for about 25 cents. On the other hand, most of the film's budget probably went into this effect....

   I also love a bit toward the climax where the bad guys fail to hear machine gun fire practically right outside their huge bay window!

SUPER-SPY CHECKLIST:

Science-fictiony gadgets?

 Check! (The flame-thrower hair dryer is actually pretty in tune with the 60's spy movies, but the dis-integrator ray is almost too fantastic. Usually in movies like this, such a device would belong to the evil mastermind, and it would be the size of a cannon....)

A bald bad guy?

 Check! In this case, he's a henchman rather than the main villain, which was done quite a lot in the 60's (OUR MAN FLINT, MURDERER'S ROW, DIMENSION 5, etc).

Evil genius behind everything using scientists for their brains/invention?

 Check! In this case, the scientists aren't quite as innocent as the standard of their breed, who are usually kidnapped and forced to work for the bad guys (MURDERER'S ROW, LIGHTNING BOLT, etc). Here, they're just misguided a bit, having thrown in their lot with an environmental terrorist organization and later a power-mad dictator. It's his ranting about taking over the world that brings the scientists to their senses.

Scientists/underling turns against evil organization and helps our hero?

 Check! Although this is the only time I can think of where someone revolts without the influence of the hero. In fact, the rebel never even meets Ilona or any member of her squad!

Enemy lair/fortress?

 Check! Although the underground lair is the most popular, and impressive, secret lair, here we get the favorite second choice: a castle/mansion, complete with dungeon. In this case, the capital office of the country/army seeking world domination. Fortunately for our girls, the country is so small the army consists of about three-dozen guys, tops.

Nuclear doomsday plot?

 Check! Rather than risk losing control of his new-found power, the dictator decides he'll use the Space Jeep to detonate the world's atomic missiles! I'm not sure how the SJ would be able to do that, but it can. The rebel scientists must stop the countdown by destroying the control center for the hijacked SJ.

Bad guys double cross each other?

 Check!

Big explosive climax?

 No, not really. The scientist gets to the controls of the SJ board and... does something which destroys the control center with a lightning bolt?!?!?!! No rows of computers exploding either, just a shot of the building being hit with a cartoon energy bolt and then going silent! 

   (I guess he did this by firing some sort of weapon on the SJ, although that doesn't really seem like the kind of thing you'd have on a peaceful space exploration probe as established earlier, one every big nation supposedly has a hand in!)

   (I guess I should also note that the SJ, in it's stock footage universe, was seen passing a couple of planets, Mars and Saturn I think. Where exactly is this SJ? In orbit or deep space?)

Exotic death trap/escape from same
?

 No, not really. As noted, the bikini girls are held at gunpoint once, but Ilona saves them with her machine gun. The Squad is pinned by gunfire a time or two, but nothing as flashy as a buzzsaw trap or locked chamber filling with water.

Cool demise for the main baddie?

 No, not really. Ilona destroys the bad guys, conveniently grouped together behind a jeep with her super-death ray. This is done in a single shot, and pretty blandly. It's not quite Dr. Who being crushed by his desk or Goldfinger being sucked out of a plane window.

   So, no big explosive ending. Instead, we get a follow-up N.O.O.N. broadcast where the president explains the "minor" problem with the SJ has been fixed and the program can return to normal. We don't even get a scene implying a relationship, or at least future adventures, for Frank and Ilona!

    Had they just shown a model of the command center being blown up, everything would have been ducky!

   All in all, a pretty stupid movie. It makes up for it by being entertaining and moving at a nice clip, though. Oddly, better than I expected. I never go into a new movie with too many expectations, though, so take from that what you will....