Mark Neveldine’s “Panama” opens with a heroic voiceover saying that “there’s nothing more rock and roll than taking out the bad guys for the red, white, and blue.” This clearly sets the tone for the next ninety minutes as the film presents two US marines in Panama trying to strike a secret deal and topple the country’s government. However, this unabashedly partial and one-sided narrative is not what brings the film down, but rather the way in which it is told. The film stars Cole Hauser and Mel Gibson in the lead roles. The lackluster writing, constantly blitzing camerawork, and a terribly superficial and predictable plot make it a rather bad watch.
‘Panama’ Plot Summary
In 1989, James Becker was an ex-marine living in complete misery, even a year after his wife’s tragic death. Blaming himself for her demise, which possibly took place at a time when he was away from home, Becker keeps drinking away his days, mostly passing out near her grave in their backyard. While in such a state one morning, he is approached by a member of the marines and a defense contractor, Stark, who seems to have earlier worked with Becker. Stark says that he is needed for a special and secretive mission, and although Becker disagrees at first, he is soon convinced.
When he arrives at the government base on the scheduled day, Stark is already waiting for him along with another agent, Burns. This other agent is initially very skeptical about Becker, especially about his lack of discipline and his arrogant nature, which might make him turn rogue on a mission. Once introductions are made, the two inform Becker about the mission, which is to successfully carry out an arms deal.
The CIA was actively trying to help rebel forces in Nicaragua at this time in order to topple the government and create soft power, and Panama was a geographically important location for this. However, the CIA’s direct involvement in other countries’ governance was soon deemed illegal, and so they started looking for roundabout and indirect ways to do the same. Also, the US was growing more wary of the dictator Manuel Noriega, who was the de-facto leader of Panama at the time, and was trying to think of ways to eliminate him.
Amidst such a political scenario, Noriega was offering to sell a Russian helicopter in return for ten million dollars transferred to his Swiss bank account. On the other hand, the US-backed rebel forces, called the Contras, were looking to get hold of a Russian helicopter to carry out their mission of assassinating Noriega. The USA agrees to buy this chopper from Noriega and give it to the Contras so that they can eat the cake and have it too. For Becker, he would be planted in Panama as a consultant for the administration of casinos in the country, which would permit him to settle for some time and carry out the deal of buying the chopper from Noriega.
Major Spoilers Ahead
How Far Does Becker Go With The Deal?
Once Becker reaches Panama, he meets with the broker of the deal, Enrique Rodriguez. Enrique is a man with a Harvard education and with connections on both sides—Colonel Marcos Justines, the chief military officer, yielding the real authoritative power in Panama, is his godfather, while his own uncle, Billy Ford, is a politician opposing Noriega in the elections.
Enrique lives a colorful life, plenty of champagne and alcohol, a severe cocaine addiction, and a band of women who accompany him, each of whom he introduces as his fiancée. While Becker tries to talk to him about the helicopter deal, for which the CIA has already paid an advance of one million dollars to Enrique, the man tries to stall the conversation, asking Becker to first settle into the country and to his work at the Casino Nationale.
Once he goes to the casino, he is approached by a man named Brooklyn Rivera, who has come to take him to meet with the Contra leader, Steadman Muller. They fly over to Miami, where Becker and Muller sit down to strike a deal to exchange Soviet communication equipment for a Soviet helicopter. The next day, they travel to the Contra refugee camp in Honduras, where Becker is introduced to the atrocities and violence that the common people are facing from the Sandinista Junta government of Nicaragua.
Accompanied by a small rebel army, they then go deep into the forest and kill off a camp full of the enemy government militia. After spending the weekend in such a manner, Becker is now back in Panama, where he meets with DEA agent Cynthia Benitez, who promises to help him in sticky situations if he is able to help the CIA and DEA back home. Meanwhile, Enrique meets with Justines and promises to shake out more money from the American gringos, which they would then keep as their own profit. Enrique visits Becker’s casino to try and grow closer to him and also to feed money to the casino’s owner, Cordoza. That night, Becker meets Camila, a young woman whom he is immediately attracted to, and despite Enrique’s warnings about her being connected to dangerous people, he wants to grow close to her. The two spend a sensual night together and seem to like each other beyond just physicality.
The next morning, Enrique takes Becker to a patch in the jungle to have a dirt-bike race; Enrique’s wager is that if Becker wins, then they will strike a deal for the helicopter, but if he loses, then he will look to sell it to someone else. Enrique obviously wins, as this was all part of his preconceived plans to try to get more money, and although Becker does not take the wager seriously at first, he is soon informed that the broker is about to sell the chopper to another buyer. He is understandably livid with the situation, and manages to take back the million dollars paid as an advance, which the broker had hidden inside a music speaker.
Over the next few weeks, the situation in Panama get worse with the growing possibility of an American invasion. Justines orders Enrique to bring back the million dollars from Becker by hook or by crook, and he hires a group of assassins to wipe out everyone who had been in close contact with Becker. Meanwhile, Becker had grown closer to Camila, as the two now often indulge in passionate love making, and on one such night at Camila’s residence, she suspiciously leaves the room, pretending to prepare a drink. Becker swiftly gets dressed as he hears whispers and footsteps outside, and successfully kills the hired hitmen.
Calling up Cynthia, Becker realizes that Camila is possibly part of the entire plan, and he immediately goes over to her other house. But upon getting there, he learns that Camila was only forced into it, and the two get back together again. He also learns that it was Enrique who had planted the hit on him, and soon pays him a visit. The broker is forced to reveal the truth that it was Justines who had ordered him to do so. Returning home, Becker finds Camila shot and killed by two men, and he manages to successfully kill them off and avenge her death.
On the other hand, Justines learns of Enrique’s spilling the beans to Becker, and poisons him to death for having tried to betray him. Finally, Becker goes to kill Justines and end it all, but receives a huge shock as it is revealed that agent Burns is also linked with Justines’ plans to get the money back, and he also wants Becker finished.
‘Panama’ Ending Explained: What Happened To Becker And The Situation In Panama?
Burns was the one keeping in touch with Justines for the CIA, and in the process, he had developed a personal relationship with Justines, and was now greedy for money and power. He takes hostage Becker’s sister-in-law Tatyana, who he had kept in close touch with after his wife’s death. Becker contacts Stark, and the two men carry out a handover exchange with Justines and Burns, in which Tatyana is exchanged for a briefcase full of money. Now that the woman is out of any danger, Becker goes back to Burns’ house in Panama to get the money back. He is following his superior’s order to not harm Burns and lets him go when Burns suddenly pulls out his gun to try and shoot him. Becker quickly drops him with a shot to the chest. They do not go after Justines, letting the DEA settle that score, and instead deliver the helicopter to a jubilant Muller.
In a voiceover narration, Stark explains that the rebel leader did not kill Noriega with the chopper but instead chose to rescue 200 families from trouble. As Becker enjoys a solo vacation, the same voiceover tells us of the ultimate capture of Noriega by the hands of the US army, which had by then invaded Panama.
The film, of course, has very little link to the actual history of the time and place, with only the setting or backdrop being true. Neveldine sets out to tell a story in favor of America’s questionable practice of meddling in countries in poor and war-torn conditions, which it categorically did during the latter half of the last century.
Around the 80s, the US had its eyes fixed on demolishing the Marxist Sandinista Junta government of Nicaragua, which was directly supported by Manuel Noriega, a communist himself. The US government, headed by right-wing poster-boy Ronald Reagan, had to intervene and saw the opportunity to get both the jobs done with the Contras, rebel forces in Latin America paid to do Uncle Sam’s dirty work. The Contras have been historically proven to have committed wide-scale atrocities during these times, which were heavily supported and backed by the US government, but the film makes no mention of them whatsoever. Instead, it paints the Contras in a sympathetic light as Becker visits their refugee camp and meets with innocent villagers who have been harassed by the Junta government.
Like always during any political strife, there are atrocities and sufferers on both sides of the fence, but that is blindly ignored in “Panama.” However, the film is at its worst when it comes to the way that it presents this narrative. Scenes of the rebel Muller firing his gun deep in the jungle in the manner of strumming guitar chords while playing loud rock music do not create any heroism but rather look foolishly funny. There is no depth whatsoever to any of the characters, and Mel Gibson’s short screen-times during the beginning and end do not act as saving grace either. The camera always keeps shifting and moving, with very few stops or pauses, which makes the film visually jarring at times. Overall, “Panama” is a mess that tries to salvage itself but creates a bigger mess every time, and the film is best avoided.
“Panama” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film directed by Mark Neveldine.