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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

ASHANTI -- Blu-Ray/DVD review by porfle

From what I've seen, Richard Fleischer was a director who ran hot and cold, or at least hot and lukewarm.  Next to his sci-fi classics SOYLENT GREEN and FANTASTIC VOYAGE, fact-based thrillers THE BOSTON STRANGER and TORA! TORA! TORA!, and lurid exploitation fare such as MANDINGO, his turgid sand-and-sadism potboiler ASHANTI (1979)--now on Blu-Ray/DVD from Severin Films--simmers like a kettle of aromatic yet somewhat weak tea.

The once-controversial film (as it is described) explores the horrors of Africa's slave trade, which a foreword tells us is still in full swing as unsuspecting U.N. doctors David and Anansa Linderby (Michael Caine, Beverly Johnson) arrive at a remote village to administer vaccinations.  After the locals entertain them with some colorful tribal dancing and singing, Anansa slips off for a nude splash at the nearby beach and is promptly captured by slavers led by the portly Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), beginning an odyssey that will take her across the continent with frantic husband David in hot pursuit.  

After a fast-paced start which includes David's near-death in a helicopter crash, ASHANTI settles into a slow groove that's alternately diverting and boring.  Caine--known best these days as Alfred in Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy--gives a pleasantly bland performance, coming to life only when grappling with a bad guy or two as he follows the trail of his wife's captors from the jungle to the vast expanses of the Sahara desert and finally into the bustling heart of Saudi Arabia.

Caine's main co-star during the film's languid middle section is Kabir Bedi as Malik, an intense, black-garbed desert warrior who also seeks revenge against Suleiman for destroying his family.  Malik resembles a cross between a young Bela Lugosi and Oded Fehr of Stephen Sommers' THE MUMMY, and his violent treatment of anyone associated with the slave trade gives the story much needed action.  Meanwhile, Anansa's arduous desert trek with her fellow captives features scenes of sadism including the off-screen rape of a young African boy.  An incident involving a voodoo doll lends the story an unexpected supernatural element that's interesting but out of place.

Shot on location in Africa, Israel, and Sicily, the film is so sumptuously picturesque that the desert scenes alone make it a visually splendid travelogue.  A noteworthy cast wanders in and out of the frame, including the venerable Rex Harrison as Mr. Walker of the "Anti-Slavery Society", an aging but still dynamic William Holden as mercenary Sandell, and a smarmy Omar Sharif as Prince Hassan, who will ultimately purchase Anansa for his own unsavory purposes. 

Peter Ustinov makes the most of his role as the vain, fussy Arab slave trader Suleiman, managing as only he could to turn such a vile character into the film's one source of comedy relief (aside from Caine's clumsy attempts to ride a camel).  Suleiman initially tries to pass Anansa off as a virgin to prospective buyer Hassan, but when it's discovered that she is not only married but a doctor, the quick-thinking slaver promotes her as "capable not only of rendering infinite pleasure, but of curing numerous illnesses."

Fleischer's direction is also capable and the production values are fairly good, although the musical score never rises above the level of a bad 70s TV-movie or an episode of "Fantasy Island."  The film's main point of interest, of course, is lovely model-turned-actress Beverly Johnson, whose performance as Dr. Anansa Linderby, while perfectly adequate, depends more on natural appeal than acting skills. 

The 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Severin Films is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby mono sound.  No subtitles.  Extras consist of a trailer and an interview with a still-lovely Beverly Johnson in which she enthusiastically dishes at length and in depth on the making of the film. 

Despite almost causing me to nod off a time or two, ASHANTI suffices as passable entertainment that managed to hold my interest without ever being all that involving.  What it doesn't do, surprisingly, is offer up anything approaching the kind of "Cinemax After Dark" softcore sex stuff I was expecting.  Beverly Johnson's only nudity occurs early on during her brief beach scene, after which the film is straight action-adventure without any onscreen hanky-panky.  Whether or not that's a good thing is up to the individual viewer to decide.

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