Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Beginning in 1968 with the first Airport film, disaster movies ruled mainstream cinema well into the mid-seventies. For some reason, audiences of the time seemed to like watching stuff get "blowed-up real good". The typical disaster flick featured big casts of A-list (and former A-list) stars like Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, William Holden along with high production values and special effects. Most of these films were overly earnest, highly melodramatic affairs that became ripe for parody late in the genre's cycle by films like Drive In and Airplane. In 1974, at the zenith of the disaster film's popularity, a year in which both The Towering Inferno and Earthquake were released, a big budget movie with an all-star cast about an ocean liner in peril was also debuted.

The movie's poster screams disaster flick and it was certainly marketed that way, but unlike The Poseidon Adventure or the numerous versions of Titanic, Richard Lester's follow up to The Three Musketeers is anything but a melodrama driven, special effects orgy of destruction. Quite the opposite, Juggernaut is an almost intimate, intense thriller, laced with an undercurrent of subtle but brilliant humor.

Synopsis: When an extortionist known only as "Juggernaut" threatens to set off seven bombs placed on an ocean liner unless he's paid £500,000, a group of military explosive experts are parachuted in to disarm the devices.

The plot basically takes a three-pronged approach following three different groups involved in the story. The first group is the explosive ordinance disposal team led by Richard Harris as Lt Commander Fallon. The second follows the Scotland Yard investigation led by Anthony Hopkins as Superintendent McLeod. The third group consists of the ship's passengers and crew featuring Omar Sharif as the ship's Captain, Roy Kinnear as the Social Director, Clifton James as a passenger along with various others. Ian Holm also has a small but important role as the sympathetic Managing Director of the cruise line. The movie alternates between the different groups keeping the story moving at a sure pace and preventing boredom from setting in by not sticking with any given character for too long. While Fallon and his team go about the delicate work of disarming the intricately crafted bombs on board the ship, Scotland Yard begins looking for suspects on land who have the required knowhow to construct such devices. Meanwhile the crew attempts to deal with the passengers who suspect something's amiss.

The filmmakers did a very good job at creating tension but what really kicks the movie up a notch is the humor that's woven in throughout. Most of it comes, not from the leads, but from the supporting players. Roy Kinnear's character is the most overt example as he plays a hapless social director who now must keep the entertainment going on a possibly doomed ship filled with a lot of worried passengers. His character appears to be inept even under ideal conditions. More interesting and subtle is  Roshan Seth's Indian steward Azad who plays up his foreign-ness so as not to have to interact with the passengers as much. One moment, he'll be fumbling for words and speaking with a heavy accent while dealing with passengers, seconds later he's talking in a passable English accent about football with fellow crew mates. There's also a running joke with the crew who pretend not to notice that Shirley Knight's married character is clearly the Captain's mistress. When the 3rd mate reports to the Captain's cabin and observes what is obviously a 'morning after' situation, he turns down a cup of coffee from Knight, by replying clumsily, "Thank you, but I've already had some - coffee". As in Lester's, The Three Musketeers, this type of throwaway humor appears again and again, but is so matter-of-fact and underplayed, it's easily missed on the initial viewings but nevertheless enriches the film greatly especially on re-watch.

The casting is brilliant right down to the minor roles. In particular, David Hemmings as Fallon's sidekick, Charlie Braddock, was strategically smart as it means Harris' A-list status will not save him from being taken out of the film at any time. The way in which the bomb defusing works is Harris' character attempts to disarm the first device with Hemmings following his moves with the second bomb and so on. Casting a big name like Hemmings as the second in charge really removes the 'they won't kill the star' factor and adds to the tension. I also liked Ian Holm's tortured manager character as he was written against type and played beautifully by Holm who seems genetically incapable of a sub-par performance. There's also a surprisingly non-cartoonish turn put in by Clifton James who plays a smart, perceptive and decent guy for a change, although he still chomps his signature cigar. Overall though, it's the magnificent bastard, Richard Harris, who anchors the movie as the wry, self-confident but fatalistic Fallon. Few actors can hold the screen like Harris and this is a perfect, intimate type of role where most of the time it's just Harris and the camera. He does start chewing scenery with Sharif later on in the film but I think it was in response to a rare fallow point in the script where they just needed some drama planted and Harris took it upon himself to be the farmer.

The negative aspects of the film are fairly innocuous but quite apparent script shortcomings. For example, the coincidence of the Scotland Yard inspector's wife and kids being passengers on the ship is a bit much to believe and really does nothing to add to the tension. A brief explanation on how the explosives were brought on board would have plugged an obvious plot hole. And Omar Sharif's Captain doesn't seem to have a heck of a lot to do besides getting yelled at by Harris and looked at forlornly by Knight. On the other hand the film did a few crucial things right. The parachute scene was critical in showing why it would be to dangerous to just off-load the passengers to avoid getting them blown up. The chalkboard diagram of the bomb was a nice visual touch to help the audience understand what was going on. And lastly, much of the film actually looked shot on board a ship as opposed to a set with a fake sea backdrop which really helped sell the ocean-bound feel.

In summary, the attention to detail, the subtle humor and the stellar cast make this one of the great thrillers of the 70's. The fact that it's not a disaster movie is actually a good thing.

Score 8/10