UK Release Date: 9th March 2018
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Dan Cadan
Writer: Dan Cadan
Starring: Stephen Graham, Dave Johns, Jill Halfpenny, Julian Sands, Stephen Tompkinson, Steve Furst, Michael Socha, Christopher Fairbank
Synopsis: A group of ageing British wrestlers drag themselves out of retirement in order to put on a one-off nostalgia show that could help them keep their favourite pub open.
British wrestling is currently in the ascendancy. UK grapplers occupy top positions in every major company in the world, from the American behemoth of WWE through to the arena-filling spectacles of New Japan Pro Wrestling. However, if you were to pop into your local cinema to see new Full Monty clone Walk Like a Panther, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the British Isles hasn’t featured so much as a powerslam since the middle of the 1980s. This is a movie driven by nostalgia for ITV’s World of Sport, with no awareness of the accompanying wrestling world.
The Panthers, led by Trevor ‘Bulldog’ Bolton (Dave Johns), were mainstays of British wrestling’s TV heyday, headlined by Bulldog’s battles with masked villain Lesley Beck (Christopher Fairbank). They now spend their time in village pub The Half Nelson, run by Bulldog’s son Mark (Stephen Graham), who never got his chance to step into the ring. Their old manager Popsy (Steve Furst) is inspired when an impromptu beatdown on a local yob (Michael Socha) goes viral and, when the brewery boss (Stephen Tompkinson) threatens to close the bar forever, the Panthers prepare for a one-off reunion.
Walk Like a Panther is poor for a lot of reasons, from its bizarrely broad swipes at comedy to the fact it seems to fundamentally misunderstand wrestling as an art form. British grappling is treated mostly as legitimate sport, but for one late reference to “going off script”, while American wrestling is dismissed as “fake stuff”, despite both being equally staged. This perhaps stems from the presence in the credits of World of Sport icon Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco as “wrestling adviser”. Rocco is from an era where the protection of the industry’s secret “kayfabe” was king, despite today’s wrestling fan knowing exactly what goes on behind the scenes.
Even outside of this, though, the movie is an utter mess. Stephen Graham delivers a reliably heartfelt leading performance, accompanied by British TV stalwarts like Tompkinson and Jill Halfpenny, but everyone involved looks slightly ashamed to be there. Dave Johns, in particular, wears an expression that suggests his post-Daniel Blake career isn’t quite panning out as he expected. No one is poorer served, though, than Lena Headey, who is drafted in for a cameo solely to facilitate a dreadful Game of Thrones pun. Her character’s name is Winters, for those who want to join the dots.
There are bright spots in the film. Most notably, This is England alumnus Michael Socha is great value as the delinquent teenager who provokes the ire of the former wrestlers. It feels as if a lot of his dialogue is improvised and he is clearly having the time of his life, lighting up the screen in the process. Socha embodies some of the earnest enthusiasm that writer-director Dan Cadan brings to proceedings. There’s certainly a joy to be found in a dozen spandex-wearing pensioners running along a Yorkshire street to the sound of a Rick Astley tie-in song, even if the track in question is perhaps the worst movie song ever written. Sorry, Rick.
Like a pound shop knock-off of The Full Monty, this is a British underdog story with no bite and misplaced nostalgia for a period of British culture that is no longer dead, despite what the film seems to believe. A talented cast of actors is wasted on a script that deals in Christmas cracker comedy and excruciating cultural references, without ever injecting the heart it needs to become a story worth getting behind. Walk Like a Panther is a wrestling comedy that fails to understand either wrestling or comedy. You don’t need a grapple expert to tell you that’s a problem.
Pop or Poop?
British wrestling of the past, present and future is poorly served by Dan Cadan’s creaky, naff comedy Walk Like a Panther. The jokes don’t land, the characters are all over the place and the nostalgia only lands for the most blinkered and culturally unaware of grapple fans. More importantly, everybody in the movie deserves to be tracked down by every casting director in the industry for a better role. They should have tapped out of this one.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.