Ashanti (US - BD RA)
Gabe learns all about the ins and outs of late '70s slave trade from Michael Caine
Dr. David Linderby (Michael Caine) is half of a married U.N. medical team vaccinating native villages in West Africa. But, when his skinny-dipping wife (supermodel Beverly Johnson) is abducted by a depraved Arab slave trader (Peter Ustinov), there’s no time for diplomacy. Now, with the help of a human-trafficking activist (Rex Harrison), a cynical mercenary (William Holden), and a vengeful Bedouin (Kabir Bedi), Linderby must pursue his wife’s slavers 3,000 miles across the Sahara before she can be sold at auction to wealthy Saudis. In a land without mercy, how far will one man go to save the woman he loves from the ultimate violation? (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Ashanti is the second of what appears to be an ongoing series of big-budget, B-level, ‘70s action adventures released by Severin Films, a studio originally known for their fantastic treatment of ‘60s/’70s Euro-trash. However, Richard Fleischer’s Ashanti doesn’t make its Blu-ray debut with the same modest popularity of Wild Geese or Zulu Dawn (which is scheduled to be released in January) – it’s generally remembered as either aggressively terrible or not remembered at all. Its star Michael Caine is on record as referring to it as his worst (or at least one of his worst) movies in interviews. That’s right, he considers it a worse fiasco and blight on his career than either Blame it on Rio or Jaws: The Revenge.
Fleischer (the son of animation great Max Fleischer) is known for a pretty wide variety of films, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970, with Toshio Masuda and the great Kinji Fukasaku), and even Soylent Green (1973), but the most interesting entry in his filmography is probably Mandingo (1975). Mandingo is a nearly singular film in that it was made by a major studio (Paramount) on a massive budget and directed by a major director (Fleischer), yet it is every inch a full-blooded exploitation picture. It pushes buttons with powerfully racist images, features an excess of sex (much of it of the rapey variety), and crams just about every other offensive thing it can into its 127 minutes without stepping off into the utter grotesquery of some of its lower budget competition (I hear that semi-sequel Drum, directed by Steve Carver and Burt Kennedy, is even more readily offensive). Ashanti approaches its provocative, racially-charged subject matter with softer hands, making the film’s stance on its slave trading plot more implicitly clear. It’s difficult to argue that this is a particularly racist film, outside of some obvious lapses in judgment, but I believe its exploitation-meets-prestige approach (Johnson goes skinny dipping, a boy is raped just off-screen, black magic is used to make a villain die, vomiting what appears to be chocolate syrup) marks Ashanti as something of a companion piece to Mandingo.
Fleischer’s basic direction is effective, even when his action comes off as a bit blunt, and Aldo Tonti’s cinematography is occasionally gorgeous. Rarely do you see a film with such a bad reputation that looks this good. It is difficult, however, to disagree with the general consensus when it comes to Stephen Geller’s screenplay. The basic concept is a promising mix of traditional exploitation subgenre elements (a little bit of slavery movie, a little bit of Mondo movie, a little bit of mercenary movie), but Geller fails to gather the parts into a compelling whole. The story is divided between Ashana and David’s journeys. Ashana’s part of the narrative is pretty coherent and even brings up some interesting thematic questions about her unintended effect on her slaver’s ‘family unit’ while David’s part (which makes up the majority of the screentime) is sloppy and overwhelmed with narrative dead-ends and other forms of unnecessary padding. David’s sequences are also tone-deaf in terms of balancing dopey comedic relief with heavy-handed moral quandaries. The 118-minute runtime probably doesn’t sound excessive out of context, but, given Geller’s extraneous information and Fleischer’s apparent refusal to edit, the middle section becomes a slog, verging on mind-numbing.
The cast is a bigger draw than Fleischer, who’s too much of a workman director to really have a major fanbase, or the film’s subject matter, since it’s too obscure these days to have much of a reputation. At the top is Caine, who, as stated, reportedly hated the film. Caine’s performance is never outstanding, but fulfills the requirements most fans look for in even his dullest roles. The bit where he struggles with a stubborn camel is quite funny, despite being entirely out of place within the rest of the film. Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison, and William Holden are all under-utilized, especially Holden, who only appears onscreen for maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Beverly Johnson, who didn’t really find her groove until she started appearing on television in the ‘90s, doesn’t handle the stiff dialogue too well, but her effervescent beauty helps take her beyond it. Two-time Oscar winner Peter Ustinov ( Spartacus, Topkapi) more or less steals the entire film, however, as the nonchalant slaver that steals Ashana. I’m not sure if he’s playing the character as mellow or if he honestly doesn’t care about the role and is blowing it off. Whatever his intent, he’s pretty charming. Indian star Kabir Bedi, who plays Caine’s guide Malik, is clearly the coolest guy on screen at any given moment, despite having little range to work from.
Shot with Panavision lenses and presented here in 2.35:1, full 1080p video, Ashanti looks very good, but is just shy of being among Severin’s crowning achievements due to its slightly digital look. The overall image is mostly outstanding, including bright colours, complex patterns, and sharp close-up details a standard definition would never be able to handle, but there are signs of tampering, which is disappointing considering the studio’s track record of not interfering with their Blu-ray releases. The issue as I see it is two-fold. The first problem is telecine scanning noise, which dances over the entire transfer, especially along brighter edges. The second problem is the liberal application of DNR, likely in an effort to cover up some of the machine noise. Unfortunately, natural film grain is also damaged and many of the finer textures are left overly smoothed. These issues do not deter too much from the transfer’s other qualities, especially not the treatment of complex background elements. The crisp separation and vibrant colour qualities occasionally create a slightly uncanny, pseudo bluescreen effect on some of the wider shots, but, I suppose, this can be taken as a compliment in the transfer’s favour. The palette tends to skew a little bit red in skin tones and is occasionally overwhelmed by orange (which may be a stylistic choice), but green and blue elements are quite rich and pure. The DNR tinkering doesn’t entirely negate the look of film and its artefacts. Throughout the film, you will find brief dirty sheets of grain (heavier in some parts than others), blips of print damage, and some jittery shutter effects. These aren’t usually a real problem, however (save a few blotchy bits); compression artefacts are limited to some haloes and blocking in the brightest reds.
According to imdb.com specs, Ashanti was originally mixed in mono and this Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack seems to reproduce the theatrical experience, despite its compressed nature. The monoraul source doesn’t make for nearly as thin a mix as one might assume, though there’s still not a whole lot of ambient sound wherever dialogue is concerned. The words remain clear with only hints of hard consonant hiss and are underlined with crisp source noise. The occasional ambience features a bit of depth and plenty of clarity. Composer Mike Melvoin is most famous as a studio musician who worked with some of the best and brightest artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His score is definitely a product of the era – it oozes late-‘70s style from the opening credits – and makes for a generally smooth aural experience. Only a hair of high end distortion when the musicians hit their peak volume really gives away the lack of lossy formatting.
The only extras here are Beverly Johnson Remembers Ashanti (27:00, HD), an interview with the actress on her career and experiences making the film (she’s got some great stories to share), and a single trailer.
Ashanti really isn’t the disaster that history and Michael Caine says it is, but it’s certainly problematic. At best, it’s a good-looking exploitation adventure; at worst, it’s a plodding B-movie masquerading as an important film. Severin has done a decent job bringing the film to Blu-ray, though CRT noise and DNR issues sully an otherwise fantastic reputation.
* Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray image quality. They were taken from the DVD copy included in the set.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 11th December 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Beverly Johnson on Ashanti, Trailer, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, Kabir Bedi, Beverly Johnson, Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison, William Holden
Genre: Adventure and Drama
Length: 118 minutes
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