Monday, December 31, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: 'The Wild Geese'/'Ashanti'

Since its inception a few years back, Severin Films has been on point, tracking down and unleashing cool and obscure genre fare that you won’t find anywhere else on DVD. And they’re back at it again with a new pair of nice Blu-rays of late 70s action and exploitation films, “The Wild Geese” and “Ashanti”.

“The Wild Geese” watches like a precursor to “The Expendables”, following a gang of mercenaries played by high-profile British actors of the age. Led by Colonel Alan Faulkner (Richard Burton), and anchored by Lieutenant Shawn Flynn, played by Roger Moore at the height of his James Bond suaveness, the team dives into Africa to rescue an imprisoned politician in order to stave off all manner of political unrest and rebellion.

Along the way they learn some things about themselves, each other, and their real, underlying motivations. Some are in it for the thrill, others for one last big score before shuffling off to a peaceful retirement with family and loved ones, and still more are in the game because it’s the only thing they know in this world, the only place where they are truly themselves. Some kill for money, others for politics, but in the end, they all kill just the same.

While it takes a while to reach full speed, “The Wild Geese” is worth the wait. Even in the extended introduction, where Faulkner scopes out the job and pieces together his team, there are some peak moments. Chief among these is when Flynn force-feeds the son of a local mob kingpin, a spoiled kid who has been pedaling tainted cocaine, a pile of his own strychnine-laced blow. Not only does this scene illustrate how badass Flynn is, but also that he has a strict code, and indicates that he’s going to be the moral compass of our band of brothers in arms. He knows that his actions will earn him a target right on his back, but he goes through with it anyway.

Once you get into the meat of the story, after a boot camp style training montage, the action is strong as the Geese are forced into one harrowing situation after another. Some guys stand up, some unravel, and you wind up with a solid little gem of kick ass action cinema. The film is ripe with tough decisions, themes of friendship, duty, and honor, and a big explosion now and again, just in case your attention has started to wander off. These are grizzled dudes, who say grizzled things to each other, like, “on your feet, you fucking abortion.”

“Ashanti”, on the other hand, begins rather quickly, and it’s the middle of the film where the momentum flags. Spawned by “Soylent Green” director Richard Fleisher (who also directed little movies like “Conan the Destoryer”, “Mr. Majestyk”, and “Mandingo”), the modern slavery epic has some strengths, but clocking in at two hours long, it could have been tightened up quite a bit to keep the pace more consistent, and increase the tension throughout.

On its original release, the film made waves for tackling a controversial topic, the modern human trafficking underworld. There are some grim moments, but overall there have been so many films since to take on the subject, even something like “Taken”, that “Ashanti” doesn’t pack quite the punch that it must have had in its heyday. There are some tough choices to be made, but they’re dealt with in as light a way a possible. Still, it’s moderately successful, despite the fact that star Michael Caine calls it one of his three worst movies—which says something—and director Fleischer was removed part way through production.

Dr. David Linderby (Caine) and his wife, Dr. Anansa Linderby (supermodel Beverly Johnson) are doctors for the World Health Organization, distributing vaccines among African tribes. A member of another tribe, the notorious slaver Suleiman (Peter Ustinov) kidnaps Anansa. David sets off across the Sahara before she can be sold to a wealthy prince (Omar Sharif). That’s an especially bold move because one, he’s alone, and two, he’s never been there before. But that’s what he has to do, he is, after all, a badass 70s man of action. On his journey, David enlists the help of a mercenary helicopter pilot (William Holden) who refers to himself as a whore, a member of the anti-slavery league (Rex Harrison), and a vengeance-fueled Bedouin (Kabir Bedi).

Too much time is spent wandering in the desert, and the score, by jazz pianist Michael Melvoin, is horrifically out of place—it’s more like the music from a quirky 70s network melodrama than a taut adventure thriller. “Ashanti” is also guilty of the era’s simplistic depiction of tribal “savages,” and you’ll notice that Ustinov might be the least Arabic looking Arab to ever appear on screen. There’s even a strange aside with a weird little witch-doctor-like kid who has been kidnapped along with Anansa.

The package put together for “The Wild Geese” is a nice companion to the film. You get two new interviews, one with director Andrew V. McLaglen, and another with military advisor Mike Hoare. “The Last of the Gentlemen Producers” is a documentary about producer Euan Lloyd, which features the likes of Roger Moore, Indrig Pitt, and more. There’s a featurette from the original release, called “The Flight of the Wild Geese”, and an old newsreel about the film. As usual, however, the jewel in this crown in the commentary track that features Lloyd, Moor, second unit director John Glen, all lorded over by filmmaker Jonathan Sothcott.

Blu-ray is an excellent vehicle for both films. The transfers look solid, and the bright exteriors, luscious colors, and exotic locations, really pop on these discs. Though “The Wild Geese” makes full use of space available, the only extra on “Ashanti” is an extended interview with Beverly Johnson. This talk is interesting enough, and Johnson has a cool perspective and lots of stories. She was a supermodel, the first African American woman to grace the cover of Vogue, who also knew her window in that career would be small. Aware of this, she transitioned to acting, where she could have a longer shelf life. Still, the interview only goes so far. Overall, you should definitely check out “The Wild Geese”, but you can easily skip over “Ashanti” without missing too much.

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