It does not take very long for the veneer to slip and for Walk Like a Panther to admit that it couldn’t actually give a toss about British wrestling. The film may begin with a montage depicting various households in 1980s Britain – a title card soon appended to “Great Britain,” an early clue as to the kind of audience this film is playing to – coming together on a Saturday afternoon to watch wrestling on ITV’s World of Sport, including allusions to The Queen loving it and throwing out baseless claims that it even drew in more viewers than the football managed (citation needed). It’s a montage that contains curiously little archival wrestling footage and is finished before it can even properly get going, skipping ahead to today, 30 years on from World of Sports cancellation. According to Walk Like a Panther, that cancellation has caused British wrestling to die off completely, murdered by greedy television executives importing the “fake” wrestling practiced by Americans.
With this one early exchange, Walk Like a Panther tips its hand, before the rest of the film proceeds to drive bulldozers all over the notion of a legitimate celebration of British wrestling. Now, of course, there are major differences between British and American wrestling, especially the old-school versions of both, and lots of stories about wrestling choose to pretend that all wrestling matches are legit shoot-fights of athletic competition instead of pre-determined semi-choreographed entertainment spectacles. And, you know, sure, I might have been willing to let slide the extremely disrespectful falsehood that British wrestling has been completely dead (and not experiencing a prolonged resurgence of widespread popularity and awareness thanks to a new generation of talent and promotions) since the late-80s for the purposes of an Underdog Story, Sports Variant #8. And, hell, I may have been able to accept the fact that a late-film demonstration of what Mark Bolton (Stephen Graham, needs a better agent like now) is capable of in the ring happens entirely off-screen as a way of withholding the reveal in time for the big show in the finale.
I may have been able to accept all of those things, and all of the other ways the film tramples over basic wrestling concepts. But then writer-director Dan Candan chose to consistently interrupt his wrestling show finale by cutting to irrelevant scenes of Scroobius Pip and some other bloke having interminably long and unfunny riffing sessions about beard nets, ball hair, and pronouncing the word “ninja” as “neenhah,” whereupon I realised that Candan really did not give a single toss about British wrestling. It’s the kind of bafflingly awful development that slots so many other niggles that have been bugging you up until then into place and you finally realise the big picture. Of course, the film pretends British wrestling has been dead for decades! Of course, it largely fails to understand how wrestling alignments work! Of course, it doesn’t actually find any wrestling-related jokes to make in this wrestling-based comedy! Of course, there are almost zero proper training montages in this underdog sports movie! Walk Like a Panther doesn’t actually care about wrestling as anything other than a set-up to watch aging, semi-respected British character actors embarrass themselves in lycra!
Watching Walk Like a Panther made me ever more grateful for Netflix’s GLOW turning out as well as it did. Again, I know that it’s not quite an apples to apples comparison given the differences between British and American wrestling (and also that one’s a film and the other’s a TV series), but GLOW gets professional wrestling. It was willing to show the nitty-gritty of organising these events, to colour in its characters, to understand the necessity and complexity of face-heel dynamics, and to actually stage its wrestling sequences with visual competency and an adherence to old-school wrestling without it just involving people doing crap standing shoulder blocks over and over again. Panther even shares GLOW’s finale conceit of playing the big show without telling the viewer in advance what will happen, creating the illusion of a ramshackle show going off the rails. But Panther’s final show is just a mess of random disjointed crap that barely makes sense, whilst GLOW’s pays off multiple narrative threads and communicates the idea of “working” those who watch pro wrestling. Also, GLOW’s cutaways from the action had a narrative and thematic point, instead of an endless diatribe about someone stealing their granddad’s beard net.
So, wrestling doesn’t mean shit to Walk Like a Panther. Not really, anyway. It’s a means to an end, like male stripping in The Full Monty or nude calendars in Calendar Girls. That, therefore, must mean that we are here for the drama, right? For likeable, well-drawn characters played by talented actors and actresses? For themes of aging, and the forgotten working-class heart of Britain? For at least some funny jokes, right? The premise – The Panthers, a fictional but famous wrestling troupe led by Mark’s negligent father, Trevor (Dave Johns), have to band together and put on one last show in order to raise the money required to save their beloved pub, the beating heart of their tiny out-of-the-way village, from being shut down by evil property developers(?) (Stephen Tompkinson) – fits into that aforementioned lineage. It’s even been produced by Fox International, who perhaps smelled the Full Monty comparisons a mile off and made sure that, if anyone was going to cash in on their work, it would be themselves.
However, whilst it’s reception has been unfairly downgraded in recent years, The Full Monty was actually… what’s the word I’m looking for… good. Walk Like a Panther, meanwhile, is like the crap CBBC version of a really crap ITV sitcom. It wasn’t until after I saw the film that I discovered Panther was originally a failed television pilot from 2011 that has instead been reworked into a feature-length film, but I already had an inkling of its half-decade old television origins just by watching it. There are Fifty Shades of Grey book jokes in a film released in 2018! Its appearance is even accompanied by a whip-crack sound effect on the soundtrack, a punctuation technique the film abuses to the same degree that Randy Orton does rest holds. Our show is set in motion when the Panthers beat down a disrespectful chav stereotype (Michael Socha) taken straight off of the pages of the Daily Mail circa 2009; although, because this is a “comedy,” he’s more of an ineffectual prank-based miscreant than the knife-wielding bogeyman of your nightmares. And as for any drama about trying to whip up interest in their show? That prior-mentioned beatdown just goes “viral” and that’s your lot. “Viral” gets mentioned a lot in Panther, but it never means anything. Aging screenwriters never get the concept of online fame, but they’re probably at least thankful it sounds buzzwordy enough to handwave away any explanations of how important plot mechanics occurred.
Characters are either deficiently underwritten, incredibly unlikeable and annoying, or both. Julian Sands plays the former-gorgeous wrestler archetype with a forever-zoned-out mind, and he’s stuck in a love triangle between his relentlessly hectoring and abusive former valet (Jill Halfpenny) and a crazed stalking fan who insists the kid with a terrible wig she has is his. Trevor Bolton is just kind of a massively unlikeable dick whose character development is stuck in first gear for half of the film, before immediately skipping straight to the end of his arc without any warning. There is a black transwoman, Zulu Dawn, in the cast and the film surprisingly never once makes jokes about that fact, but those points are immediately taken away for Zulu not having any definable personality traits and her being played by a cis man (Robbie Gees). The film doesn’t invest enough in the drama of any character in order for the viewer to forge any connections with them or the events on-screen, and almost every actor is mugging to the absolute extreme – Tompkinson as the villain and Steve Furst as the promoter putting everything together being the absolute worst culprits; Basil Brush would have given less tiring and more nuanced performances.
Instead, Panther overloads itself with pointless sequences and plots that don’t go anywhere. If the extremely dated pop culture references, hilariously awful theme song that keeps turning up but is always buried in the mix (like everyone is ashamed of it), and total misunderstanding of how modern culture works hadn’t already given it away, then this is where the project’s television origins become most apparent. In a weekly televised sitcom, maybe hacky dumb-buddy routines involving the “close protection” side career of one of the group, the imbecilic protégés he takes on, and their looping conversations about nothing at all would work better; Phoenix Nights-style digressions that fill the half-hour each week without having to sacrifice the pace of the plots that matter. In a film that runs just over 100 minutes, they bring proceedings to an irritating screeching halt. There are way too many goddamn characters, the film burns through plot points at a noticeable frenzy, there are entire jokes and scenes that seem designed to set up later sequences that just never occur. Jason Flemyng appears as a ghost version of his character for one scene, affects the plot in no meaningful way, and then never comes back.
It’s just a complete hack-job of the highest order. The “peak” of Panther’s “comedy” involves 3 men screaming for over half a minute about something we are only told of afterwards and is not funny. The drama is non-existent and haphazardly-handled. The direction is leadfooted when it’s not being outright cheap and bad – good lord, the actual wrestling show is one of the worst directorial jobs that I have seen in years. Multiple developments, particularly during the finale, make no structural or narrative sense. And its attitudes towards wrestling extend only so far as to provide a hook for its generic narrative, with little to no tangible love or respect for the form. Lena Headey – who has her own, far better sounding wrestling movie coming out in six months, Stephen Merchant’s Wrestling with my Family – turns up in two scenes for an uncredited cameo (and obligatory abysmal Game of Thrones reference) and it’s like Hayley Williams just got up on stage with Imagine Dragons.
I am a regular Nostradamus when it comes to statements about what has to be the worst film of the year at the time of my reviewing it, so I guess I should brace myself for worse to still somehow come. But, I mean, Walk Like a Panther has set the bar dramatically low. It can’t get much worse than this in 2018, can it? …can it? …please don’t let it.