Friday, August 15, 2008

Operation Black Panther (Thailand, 1977)

Operation Black Panther (aka Yeh Nuat Sua) is one of those films that saw Thai action legend Sombat Methanee doing double duty as both star and director. As usual, my ignorance of the Thai language prevents me from providing you with much detail regarding its plot, but I can tell you that the movie contains two brilliant bits, one of them being the gang of super-criminals who all wear full-head rubber panther masks.

The gang also has a live panther on hand to dine on those members of the organization whose performance falls short of expectations. The other brilliant bit is Sombat's car, which looks to be made out of two Mini Cooper front ends welded together, complete with opposite facing steering wheels. This allows Sombat to drive the car from either end, something that is demonstrated to amusing effect in an early chase scene where he keeps hopping from one seat to the other to extricate himself from whatever apparent dead-end his pursuers have backed him into. (Yes, I know there's such a thing as reverse, but what's the fun in that?) A later chase in an underground parking garage sees Sombat and his female accomplice (played by Aranya Namwong) each taking control of one of the car's steering wheels and working in tandem to evade the bad guys who are baring down on them. Finally, a well placed burst of machinegun fire from one of the heavies separates the two halves of the car, leaving Sombat and Aranya to complete the chase by each driving their own truncated half-cars with the back ends dragging noisily against the pavement.

If this all sounds extremely silly, it is, and it's obviously intentionally so. Centering on a performance by Sombat as a sort of bungling James Bond character, Operation Black Panther is clearly a spoof, one that keeps its tongue firmly planted in cheek throughout its running time -- from the colorful opening credits that liberally borrow footage from the Pink Panther cartoons to the deliciously atrocious miniature effects of its "spectacular" action climax (okay, well, maybe those weren't so intentional).

This might signal rough waters ahead for those familiar with what usually passes for humor in old Thai movies, but the amazing thing is that Sombat actually kind of manages to pull it off. This is in large part due to the fact that he doesn't make his performance rely too much on klutziness and mugging, instead balancing it with his usual action hero panache to create a character who is more of an everyman than a figure of fun, and who is very easy to root for as a result. Sombat is also so obviously having a good time poking fun at his image that it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit of things to some extent.

Where the director/star also succeeds is in delivering a film that lampoons action movie conventions while still standing up as a solid action movie in its own right. To this end, the middle part of the film is one long chase sequence, leading from the aforementioned pursuit involving Sombat's reversible wonder car to an uphill foot chase during which both Sombat and the villains have to periodically stop to rest, to a stunt-filled sequence featuring Sombat trying his best to maneuver a motorcycle with a sidecar through heavy traffic.

I also have to admit that I found some of the gags at the expense of typical spy movie business kind of funny. How often have we seen that scene where the hero, after stealing his way into the villain's high tech lair, dispatches one of his henchman by garroting him from behind? (For one thing, it always makes for an easy screen capture.) A lot -- which makes the blackly comic little bit where, after doing just that, Sombat has to release the henchman's death grip on his ducktail by gingerly prying away his fingers one-by-one worthy of an appreciative chuckle. Another bit in the Panther gang's lair, where Sombat keeps bumping his head on the low ceiling of a secret corridor despite being repeatedly warned by Aranya not to do so, is the kind of bit that is stupid when done just once, but somehow becomes funnier with repetition.

Operation Black Panther also boasts a funky, blaxploitation-style score that, while most likely needle-dropped (check the instrumental version of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground"), still serves to make the goofy action that it wraps around go down that much more easily.

While I definitely liked the film, I can't pretend that the lack of subtitles didn't present some obstacles to my enjoyment. For example, I never really got a clear idea of who Sombat was supposed to be, or why the villains were chasing him -- or, for that matter, what his relationship to Aranya Namwong's character was supposed to be. Still, I had a lot of fun watching it, and am adding a subtitled version of it to the release schedule of my imaginary DVD company that I run inside my mind.

That company is called "Onus", because I realize that, in reality, it would bring me nothing but financial heartbreak -- and its imaginary release schedule also includes subtitled versions of The Dark Heroine Muk Lan-Fa Shattered the Black Dragon Gang and Hausu, and maybe one of the early Red Eagle movies. Welcome to the roster, Operation Black Panther.

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