Ashanti (1979) Blu-ray Review: The Most Disastrous Disaster of a Non-Disaster Flick

If one were to pick a solitary word to describe Richard Fleischer’s 1979 exploitation adventure flick Ashanti, the noun “disaster” might very well define every single aspect about the motion picture. Though he was no stranger to the field of action/adventure movies – or even exploitation for that matter – it seemed that, by the time the late ’70s rolled around, Fleischer (son of legendary animator Max Fleischer) no longer had quite the luck he had enjoyed up to fifteen years prior with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and even Soylent Green. In fact, shortly before helming Ashanti, Fleischer had helmed Crossed Swords – a movie that fared so poorly at the box office, its star (Mark Lester, of Oliver! fame) gave up on acting altogether.

In fact, Ashanti‘s own lead performer, the venerable Michael Caine, has publicly claimed that it is his third worst feature. And mind you, his top two contenders do not – repeat, do not – include either of his two other, infamous theatrical disasters, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure or Jaws: The Revenge! Perhaps that’s why his character here – who bears the moniker of Dr. David Linderby – has a certain laissez faire attitude throughout his terribly cumbersome plight across the Sahara, which he embarks upon in order to rescue his wife, Dr. Anansa Linderby (Beverly Johnson), who gets kidnapped in the beginning of the film promptly after Fleischer’s ogling camera lovingly explores her glorious nude body when she goes skinny dipping.

And who is behind the kidnapping, you may ask? Why, it’s none other than slave trade Peter Ustinov, of course – who takes a break from being the good guy for a change here, which he compensates by slightly upping the overall tone of his already-famous method of overacting. Did I say “slightly”? I meant “a lot”, actually.

And from that moment on, boys and girls, we find a categorically bored Dr. Caine hopping about from one source of help to another, never quite mustering up enough guts to go quite as ape-shit on the baddies as his later slave-trader-tracker-downer successor Liam Neeson would do thirty years on. First, Caine enlists the help of mercenary William Holden (in one of his last big-screen roles before his tragic drunken encounter with his bedside table), which promptly ends in a disaster. Literally. Somehow returning back to civilization in time, Caine enlists the assistance of still another dangerous-feller-for-hire – the determined-to-kill-Peter-Ustinov-for-killing-his-family Malik, as played by Kabir Bedi, who most white American folk will only vaguely recognize as Louis Jourdan’s henchman in Octopussy. So, once more, Caine attempts to catch Ustinov – who meanwhile, is busy hamming it up elsewhere on location – before he reaches the sea and sells his spouse into slavery.

Add in extended cameo roles by Rex Harrison (whom Fleischer had directed in Doctor Doolittle in ’67) and Omar Sharif – who looks like he’s about one dollar away from tossing his arms up in the air and walking off set à la Orson Welles whilst recording a series of Findus commercials – and you have a film that genuinely sounds more exciting that it really actually is. To top it all off, Ashanti never met up to expectations in theaters, and its very production was a disaster unto itself. According to various – mostly unconfirmed – sources, director Fleischer had to be hospitalized for sunstroke, star Beverly Johnson was both raped by a masseur and then imprisoned before both she and Fleischer were sacked by producers!

But starlet Johnson is nonetheless only too happy to share that rape/imprisonment tidbit with us – along with the many infidelities of her then-husband – in Severin Films’ bonus feature, “Beverly Johnson Remembers Ashanti“, wherein she introduces herself as “supermodel Beverly Johnson”. But don’t let that discourage you: there’s some interesting stuff to be heard here. (A secondary extra for Severin’s Blu-ray/DVD Combo includes the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in Standard-Definition.)

Actually, all cards on the table, Ashanti‘s a bit of an interesting title to behold unto itself. Sure, it’s no classic, but I dare say the film has overcome its decidedly negative reputation by simply comparing it to half of the crap Hollywood has produced in the last ten years alone. Why, I might have liked it even without the copious amounts of nude Beverly Johnsons, overacting Peter Ustinovs, sleepy-headed Michael Cainings, absentee Rex Harrisons, apprehensive Omar Sharifs, and exploding William Holdens – though there just aren’t enough of the latter, to be perfectly frank. Severin Films presents this anti-classic in a pretty darn decent 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer, which presents the movie in its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio, along with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.

There are no subtitles included with this release, but then, if you’re picking up a slave-trade action/adventure that was produced in the late ’70s by a couple of Frenchmen (who really didn’t do anything else afterward) hoping to cash-in on the already-waning slavery exploitation subgenre, chances are you aren’t in it for the well-written dialogue.

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Luigi Bastardo

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