Review: Day of the Panther / Strike of the Panther Double Feature Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment
Two cult classic action flicks from director Brian Trenchard-Smith have arrived on Blu-ray at last, and the story behind the films is every bit as interesting as the action on the screen!
Brian Trenchard-Smith is celebrated by genre and cult movie fans for his outstanding work on films like Dead End Drive-In, Turkey Shoot, Stunt Rock, and BMX Bandits. Now two of his more obscure films have surfaced on Blu-ray with brand new HD restorations. Day of the Panther and Strike of the Panther are martial arts/action films shot on location in Hong Kong and Australia, made on a shoestring budget, and starring a newcomer named Edward John Stazak that the filmmakers hoped would achieve international stardom.
The premise of Day of the Panther is wild and thin. Stazak stars as Jason Blade (!!!), a graduate of a martial arts school that teaches the way of the Panther. Among his clan are his mentor, played by John Stanton (Darkness Falls) and his mentor's daughter, Linda. Our trio of characters serves as an international crime busting squad, using their ninja-like skills to investigate crime in East Asia. Things go sideways when they witness a mob-related massacre and Linda is attacked and killed on the street by a group of tough guys wearing masks.What follows is a mission of revenge and justice as Jason Blade must fight through hordes of bad guys on his way to the man at the top. Along the way, he has time to fall for another one of John Stanton's family members, Gemma, played by Paris Jefferson (Xena: Warrior Princess).
The plot of Strike of the Panther is actually even thinner, with Gemma being kidnapped by the baddies and Jason Blade having to storm the enemy base of operations to get her back. John Stanton's character is injured and has to sit on the sidelines, offering help to Blade via telepathy, like some sort of martial arts Obi-Wan Kenobi. Did I mention the movie starts with 12 minutes of recap footage from Day of the Panther?
If all this sounds like the plot of a video game, it's not by accident. The filmmakers wanted these movies to appeal to teenagers (Trenchard-Smith says it was aimed at 13-20 year olds), so all nuance is thrown out the window, along with finer plot points and character development and growth. But then again, who's watching these movies for nuance and character growth? We want to see action, and both movies deliver it in spades. Trenchard-Smith knew what he wanted to deliver to his audience, and he succeeds at giving us lots of fighting with creative camera work, brutal impacts, and varied locations. Edward John Stazak is a fine martial arts performer and has the body of an action hero. If things had worked out differently, he could have been an Australian version of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal.
The real miracle is how good these movies are in relation to the size of their budget. Both Day of the Panther and Strike of the Panther were filmed at the same time for 500,000 dollars. Everyone involved knew what they were making, realizing that they were contributing to ultra-low-budget cinema in the hopes that the product would be successful enough to earn back the budget and hopefully land them more work in future projects. As it stands, this is an early example of Australia's contribution to the international action hero trend that lasted from the mid-to-late eighties until the mid-nineties. Considering Stazak only has three screen credits to his name, it would seem that the films weren't quite as successful as had been hoped for, and yet here we are talking about them over thirty years later.
One of the reasons that the film is so well-stocked with martial artists and brawlers is because it was originally set to be directed by Pete West, a stunt coordinator with lots of experience in making fighting scenes look as real as possible. West reportedly shot for four days before Brian Trenchard-Smith was asked to come in and rescue the project. Trenchard-Smith had not been involved in the creative or conceptual process at all, and he admits that he would have done things much differently if he'd been involved from the start.
All of these challenges somehow make the entire double feature even more impressive for me. There's one scene in Strike of the Panther in which Jason Blade chases a guy up the side of a tall apartment complex. They climb the outside balconies of each floor, going higher and higher and pulling themselves up onto each new ledge with nothing but pure upper-body strength. In a Hollywood production, a stunt man would have done this and we wouldn't have seen our star's face except in close-up; yet Edward John Stazak does quite a bit of his own stunt work, and we can clearly see that he's the one hanging off the side of a building. In another scene from the second movie, he climbs up a series of loose pipes and girders to a platform some 15-20 feet above the floor. There are no safety harnesses, no crash pads. The risk is real.
The acting is exactly what you'd expect from this type of movie. Some of the supporting players are fantastic, with John Stanton and Michael Carman turning in a truly-threatening performance as the big bad. Even Paris Jefferson brings a sweet naiveté to her romantic role, showing off her eighties dance moves in a workout-based seduction scene that feels far more cute than sexy. Stazak is the weakest in the acting department, but as mentioned earlier in this review, his real-life martial arts skills and physicality carry him a long way. We see him training as often as possible, and while it's not exactly something out of a Rocky film, Stazak can do push-ups on two fingers and devastate a heavy punching bag. He's also got a mean spin kick!
Ultimately, this is a celebration. These movies have lived in obscurity for far too long, with the only sources I've been aware of coming from faded VHS video cassettes from three decades ago, which is, of course, exactly how these movies have been seen all the way up until now. Thanks to Australia's Umbrella Entertainment, we finally have gorgeous restorations that show all the detail, grain, and color captured on the original 16mm film negatives. There are no special features on the Blu-rays besides trailers for the films, but having both movies in HD and in their original aspect ratio is special enough.
Day of the Panther and Strike of the Panther are two movies for everyone who grew up in the pre-digital days of action television and low budget cinema. They're for those curious about hand-made action movies constructed during a time when 500,000 dollars and a crew of passionate people could come together to create something really fun and remarkable. They're for B-movie enthusiasts, video store aficionados, ozploitation fans, and cult movie collectors. At last, Brian Trenchard-Smith fans can finally add another important piece of his career to their shelves. The double feature Blu-ray is region free, and is now available from Umbrella Entertainment.