Director - Andrew McLaglen
Cast - Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris
Country of Origin - U.K.
Discs - 2
Distributor - Severin Films
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 01/04/13
The Film: 3/5
David Linderby (Michael Caine) and his wife Anansa (Beverly Johnson) are both doctors who work for the United Nations. Their latest assignment takes them to an African village to inoculate the villagers. While David is engaged with photographing a tribal dance Anansa decides to go skinny dipping in a nearby river. After she emerges from the water she is kidnapped by slave traders led by the loathsome Suleiman (Peter Ustinov) and thrown into a truck with other enslaved men and women. Once David discovers his wife has vanished he takes every legal avenue possible to find her but finds the local authorities are unable to help. He soon meets Bryan Walker (Rex Harrison), an anti-slavery activist who puts him in contact with the mercenary helicopter pilot Sandell (William Holden), and with Sandell David formulates a plan to intercept Suleiman's party at a river. When their efforts result in failure and the mercenary's death Walker takes David to Malik (Kabir Bedi), a nomadic tribesman who wants revenge on Suleiman for his role in the death of his wife and children and is the only person who can help David rescue Anansa from the slavers' clutches as they begin a 3,000 mile trek across the treacherous Sahara Desert. It has now become a race against time as Suleiman intends to sell Anansa to the Saudi prince Hassan (Omar Sharif) and David must act fast and with courage he never thought he had in him or he will lose his beloved wife forever.
Ashanti is the sort of movie that made the wonderful book Reel Bad Arabs intrinsically possible. It was made in an age when the popularity of big-budget spectacles of globe-trotting adventure and danger was looking extremely wan with each passing year as high-concept blockbusters like Star Wars, Jaws, and Superman that required no movie stars to level the box office playing field became the new standard in Hollywood. Producers like Irwin Allen and Dino De Laurentiis continued to persist in churning out such expensive campy dreck defiantly in the face of a shifting paradigm and saw their influence in the film industry deteriorate as a result. The current Republican Party seems to be following this model now as they spiral into a bottomless pit of political irrelevancy. Since that course of action seems to be easier, and more counterproductive, than changing with the times it is no surprise why most of the Hollywood old guard became extinct, steadfastly clinging to their old ways like they would be soon welcomed back into the fold with heartfelt apologies and bashfully shrugged shoulders. That did not exactly happen nor did the era of big films built around sheer star power fade into the fog of time; it is just that these days, with movie star salaries reaching stratospheric heights the concept of bringing more than one together in a single film has become a rarity in the industry and only occasionally indulged in during awards season.
Even if it were made today no one would mistake Ashanti for an awards contender, not even as a dark horse contender whose chances of making it into the big contest were slimmer than a shoelace. Even though it had one of Hollywood's finest yeoman directors at the helm, a script concocted by writers with respectable reputations, and a sturdy cast of global superstars with faces ready to be displayed on the official release poster Ashanti still ended up as a glossy, overblown B-movie that would make most studio executives throw up their hands aghast at its very sight and one of the reasons why the Razzies were created in the first place. It is trash - racist, sexist, brainless trash no less - but then again so was Showgirls and that flick has a bigger cult following than Jim Jones. Thus movies like Ashanti will always have almost as many defenders as they do detractors. The film was adapted from the novel Ebano (Ebony) by the Spanish author Alberto Vazquez-Figueroa by two very capable screenwriters - Stephen Geller and George MacDonald Fraser. Geller's greatest accomplishments were writing the novel that inspired the 1968 cult classic Pretty Poison and adapting Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five into the celebrated 1972 film directed by George Roy Hill, while Fraser (whose work went uncredited) was best known as the creator of the Flashman series as well as the screenwriter for Richard Lester's international smash hits The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Lester later made a film one of the Flashman books called Royal Flash for which Fraser wrote the script and has become one of my favorite films of the director.
Sitting comfortably and compensated at the helm was Richard Fleischer, the son of animator pioneer Max Fleischer and the director of some very fine features since he made his first in 1946. Fleischer's extensive resume includes the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (one of my all-time favorite live-action Disney movies), The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage, The New Centurions, and Soylent Green. That is not a filmography to be easily dismissed, that is until you get into the staggeringly lesser films that made up the bulk of Fleischer's contributions to cinema - Doctor Dolittle, Che!, Mandingo, the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond, and Million Dollar Mystery - the first and only film to be produced solely as the centerpiece of a nationwide cash giveaway contest co-sponsored by Glad Trash Bags. Fleischer also directed Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, both primarily bankrolled by De Laurentiis and both failing to live up to the expectations created by the smash success of Conan the Barbarian. Until Marcus Nispel made his 3-D Conan movie in 2011 fans of Robert E. Howard's legendary pulp hero did not think it was possible for the Cimmerian warrior to look like such a charmless buffoon on the silver screen. Even the worst of these bombs had some positively qualities, chief among them Fleischer's workmanlike direction that at least makes them look like movies and not pathetic practical jokes being played on moviegoers by movie producers with far too much disposable income, but they were hardly enough to keep them from long being considered the absolute dregs of cinema history. Directors like Fleischer had a difficult time finding film work as they were being respectfully elbowed out of Hollywood by the hungry young turks fresh out of the school of commercials and music videos but still desired to remain active so they were compelled to take directing jobs whenever they were presented, whatever they may be. Sometimes even the dirtiest jobs need a cool-headed professional in command.
Well my friends, they tend to not come much dirtier than Ashanti. This movie takes one of the ugliest subjects imaginable - slavery, especially as it still exists in the modern age - and turns into fodder for an all-star exploitation flick designed to thrill and titillate and never to engage the intellect or emotions. Quentin Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained has been widely accused of doing just that but mostly by people who have yet to actually see it. I have seen it however and the fundamental difference between that movie and Ashanti is that Django was made with craft, love, wit, and the pure exhilaration of filmmaking but was never afraid to expose its audience to the insidious, soul-crushing horrors of slavery. Ashanti, on the other hand, is low-grade garbage that had a lot of money thrown its way in an attempt to grant it the temporary illusion of legitimacy. It is such a mercenary endeavor that the cynical chopper pilot played by William Holden would have raised his glass of watered-down bourbon in its honor, and the kind of ethically-compromised entertainment that audiences around the world would finally start to groove when John Rambo went into Vietnam (played onscreen by Mexico) in 1985 to mow down hundreds of Viet Cong and Russian troops and rescue prisoners of war for the good ol' U.S. of A. Hell, the very movie that finally made Liam Neeson a movie star, 2009's Taken, is virtually a surface remake of Ashanti. There has been audiences hankering for these rancid hunks of greasy, sleazy celluloid since Charles Bronson gunned down his first black mugger - the cinema of bloodthirsty Biblical retribution. You may enjoy it, but if you begin to see these movies as a philosophy and a way of life you must seek immediate psychiatric help.
From the moment Beverly Johnson takes her one and only nude swim in broad daylight and is promptly snatched up and spirited away by the evil forces of the actor who was beaten out for the role of Inspector Clouseau by Peter Sellers playing a least convincing Arab than Rob Schneider could muster with every ounce of his so-called "talent" Ashanti reveals itself to be a movie that should never be taken seriously for fear of causing severe brain damage in the poor souls who would dare attempt such folly. Michael Caine plays his character with almost zero trace of emotion and reacts to Anansa's kidnapping in the same way a stressed-out businessman would when he discovers that his hotel room has not been properly fumigated upon his arrival. Rex Harrison's character drifts in and out of his meager scenes like the screenwriter's invention he is really but manages to display a bit more warmth and good humor than the part deserves. Johnson is quite easy on the eyes but her acting is flat and her attempts to show defiance in the face of her tormentors come off as the temper tantrums of a drunk Paris Hilton. Ustinov brings little actual menace or villainy and undercuts the potential dramatic impact of his scenes with simpering buffoonery. How any living thing on this planet outside of the inhabitants of an ant farm could be enslaved by this bloated dolt is beyond me, even though he is given Arab and African henchmen who both generate far more tension with evil grins and laughing than Ustinov could ever hope for. Unfortunately since they are both two of the most prominent characters of any ethnicity other than lily white Caucasian in the movie it does not help that they are moronic, sex-crazed savages who would be just as home in the Antebellum South of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation as they are here. The African Ansok is played by the gifted South African actor and playwright Winston Ntshona, who a year before appearing in Ashanti portrayed the sympathetic ousted President Limbani in the British action classic The Wild Geese. I wonder if Ntshona considered the predatory, pedophiliac Ansok a giant step backwards in his career. Who is to say he even had much of a choice?
The parts of Ashanti that do deliver the expected cheap thrills are often nearly undone by the filmmakers' shameless pandering to audiences. The music score by Michael Melvoin, a famed recording artist and studio musician who performed on classic albums by the Beach Boys, Tom Waits, and the Jacksons, veers awfully close to sounding like something that belongs in a late 70's primetime soap opera. When you hear it for the first time you keep waiting for the commercial breaks and a preview of the eleven o'clock news. The relationships are never developed despite having a running time three minutes shy of two minutes to work with: we do not get a sense of what makes David and Anansa's marriage endure before she is kidnapped and the besieged husband never gets to forge a bond with his compatriot Malik. William Holden and Omar Sharif are too good as actors to appear in what amounts to extended cameos. Holden especially because given his profession you would think his character would have a greater role to play in the adventure, but sadly he sticks around just long enough to cash a quick check and dispense some surly wisdom to Caine. Ntshona gets a pretty cool death scene when one of the female slaves turns out to be a witch doctor who makes the sorry bastard puke chocolate pudding before expiring horribly. When Malik tells Davis that he will have to ride a camel you almost pray that Fleischer does not subject us to an endless sequence where Caine has to mount the camel and continuously fall on his ass. The pitiful attempt is so hoary and outdated - much like the entire movie, which seems like a carbon copy of a second-rate studio melodrama from the 1950's or 60's that could have been shot on the 20th Century Fox or MGM backlots for a fraction of Ashanti's total production budget - that you can not help but chuckle at the idea that the makers of this movie not only thought the sequence was funny but that they also figured it would have the audience in stitches. Maybe it is just me but I will never hip to the idea of seeing the great Michael Caine subjected to comic humiliations that even Kevin James would find too much.
It is good that most of the cast escaped this entertaining fiasco with their dignity intact. Sharif could be effortlessly charming wandering the streets stoned in a bathrobe singing the complete works of Lee Greenwood. Bedi is the real star of the show as the stoic Malik. Whether he is cutting a bloody swath through a band of cutthroat slavers or confronting Caine over the fate of a group of rescued children who will left to the mercy of the unforgiving desert without their assistance Bedi carves out a fine portrayal of a lost soul who has become a machine fueled by hatred and vengeance. It is a performance far too good for Ashanti and the movie is all the better for it.
Severin presents Ashanti in a 1080p high-definition widescreen transfer in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image is pretty remarkable for a film of its age and reputation even though it has suffered some over the decades. The colors are sharp with deep yellow and brown hues that adds additional tension to the desert scenes with their desolate canyons and endless sand dunes and the ocean that serves as the setting for the action-packed finale sparkles like diamonds under the blazing sun. It is rather beautiful at times. The only audio option is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono that works very well with special attention given to the dialogue scenes and action beats; every gunshot sounds like cannon fire. The Melvoin score, as generic as it is, also benefits greatly from this undemanding soundtrack. No subtitles are provided.
Outside of a theatrical trailer the only extra to be found here is "Beverly Johnson Remembers Ashanti", a 27-minute video interview with the model-turned-actress gives us a nice overview of her career and shares some colorful stories from her time making Ashanti. Johnson is as lovely as she was when her career hit its stride and her observations about working on the international production with a predominantly male cast are juicy at best and at worst of middling interest.
Severin has also included a DVD copy of Ashanti in this combo pack.
Ashanti is the kind of movie you enjoy while watching, then regret enjoying it once you have had time to think about it. Guilty pleasures do not come any guiltier than this sordid bit of expensive exploitation that offers up vast amounts of entertainment value at the expense of a brain, a heart, and a soul, and whose expiration date was reached faster than most gallon jugs of lowfat milk. Severin has done a terrific job giving this antiquated relic of old school, star-driven vehicles at the dawn of the modern blockbuster age a fresh digital polish with an interesting supplementary interview as a capper.