PANAMA RED is an oddball attempt by pornographers to make a real film, not exactly squeaky clean but almost -IMDb lists it as rated PG, which is unlikely, but it is definitely a soft R. It's a must for readers of "High Times" magazine, but quite dull otherwise.
Filmmaker Bob Chinn has written and directed a paean to the particular counter-culture he lived in, extolling by implication the drug scene. Three or four decades later there is a rising chorus for legalizing marijuana and other drugs (given the failure of the various government Wars against them over the years) so this pro-drugs film is still relevant.
The problem is that Chinn's modest technical skills, and problems eliciting acting performances from his assemblage of actors, amateurs and porn performers make the lengthy (almost 90 minutes) opus awkward and stiff in too many scenes. Just as you are getting into the story and the travails of drug pusher/family man Randy Bates (played pretty well by Jim Wingert, whose own ballads sung-over carry much of the narrative), an incredibly clunky staging will negate this faster than you can say "Bertold Brecht". This is unintentional distancing, the sort of thing popular with the amateur horror videos currently cranked out on 3 and 4-figure budgets by the thousand nowadays.
That's sad, because Chinn was clearly working with a bigger bankroll than is normal in his early cheap-jack Johnny Wadd porn movies. The immense cast list (36 actors are listed in the opening credits) alone signals a super-production by X standards.
Story involves "money man" Marchaud, smoothly played by porn jack-of-all-trades Alain Patrick, who has to raise $150,000 in cash over the weekend to consummate a heavy stock transaction. To do this he needs to peddle in L.A. 1,000 keys of Panama Red, a high-grade form of marijuana just smuggled in from Mexico in shoe boxes. Film is quite interesting on the level of presenting a knowing picture of the ins & outs of drug peddling, both at a relatively grand scale and at a key at a time wholesaling. We don't see the ultimate street transactions (lid by lid level), which are usually the focus of filmmakers.
Marchaud has an immediate buyer for half his stash, and he calls on down & out pusher Bates to handle the remaining 500 keys. He only needs $60,000 in proceeds before Monday for the 500, leaving Bates and his buddy in crime John (very well acted by Black thesp Henry Sanders, previously featured in Chinn's softcore classic THE DEVIL'S GARDEN) a potential windfall profit as the keys can be sold at wholesale from anywhere between $150 and $250 a pop.
Our sympathies immediately go out to Bates, whose pregnant wife Barbara is nicely played by one of soft porn's all-time beauties, Barbara Mills/Caron. They barely have enough money to buy food (he's reduced to eating Vienna Sausages for dinner), and a comical repo man (flatly played by 1-shot Richard Weissman) is trying to grab his blue & white van, way behind in payments.
John's first deal is a big one for 100 keys, but when he arrives with the shoe boxes the Black gangster buying them strong-arms him, virtually threatening his life unless he will part with them for just $100 each rather than the agreed upon $200. Given that they need to average $120 apiece just to make their $60,000 nut owed Marchaud, this immediately puts our heroes behind the eight ball.
Also working with the boys is comically low-life pusher Bobo (Chinn's meal ticket, John Holmes). He's caught by the cops, and there's a funny but overdone scene of him being frisked -no, it doesn't go where you'd think (no big cock jokes whatsoever), but instead is amusing at how many lids he's hidden in his pockets, socks, shoes, etc. Punch-line is Holmes' successfully hiding a joint in his thick hair, which he smugly shares with auteur Chinn, incarcerated in the cell next to his.
With superstar porn actresses in the cast, including Rene Bond, Sandy Dempsey and a pseudonymous Cyndee Summers, it is fairly shocking that there are no sex scenes. Randy, despite his sympathetic attachment to Barbara, cheats on her with both Dempsey and Summers but the clinches are not shown at all. In fact, the closest to sexploitation are a couple of low angle shots of Cyndee in a see-through red negligee, looking mighty fine but not even qualifying as nudity.
One suspects, with hindsight, that the project would have made more sense as a dual-track film with a soft sex version prepared, or even a triple-X edition focusing on the true talents of Holmes and Rick Cassidy, latter cast as a cop. As it stands, I don't recall ever hearing of a drive-in booking of PANAMA RED when I was an inveterate ozoner fan in the '70s, logical since it is neither a porn nor an action movie. Chinn provides lots of talk, but zero physical action -there are no fights, shootouts, chases...nothing.
I won't spoil the okay twists of the final reels, most of them quite predictable, but suffice it to say that it all leads to a happy ending, of Mills and Wingert at the airport headed to Spain for a second honeymoon. The FBI and federal drug enforcement agents solve their case, but our heroes got away, quite different from the usual "crime doesn't pay" theme of these drug sagas.
Along the way I enjoyed Wingert's songs, and there is some diverting whimsy, as in his cute-as-hell old mother-in-law being a regular pot customer, too. Funniest credit is a big thank you to the El Segundo Police Department; the scene of Holmes being frisked and booked (ouch!, foreshadowing of real-life problems to come for the XXX superstar) is realistically shot with documentary detail.
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