Ashanti (1979)
By: Stuart Giesel on May 15, 2013 | Comments
Severin Films | Region Free | 2.35:1, 1080p | English DD 2.0 | 134 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Michael Caine, Beverly Johnson, Peter Ustinov, Kabir Bedi, Omar Sharif
Screenplay: Stephen Geller
Country: France
External Links
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Director Richard Fleischer moved on from the quasi-exploitation slavery pic Mandingo to less explosive, but similarly-themed, material in Ashanti. Possibly marketed at the time in much the same way (i.e. emphasising the film's more salacious content) and stressing that this story was based on fact, the end results are less dynamic and interesting than anything in Mandingo. Ashanti actually ends up being a straightforward rescue-adventure. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but if it weren't for the subject of slavery and some high-profile stars this would have disappeared into the annals of obscurity long ago. By the way, the film's title is not the name of the main female character played by Beverly Johnson, as I originally assumed, but rather the tribe that her character came from.

Married doctors David (Michael Caine) and Anansa (the stunning Beverly Johnson) are in Africa providing inoculations to tribespeople when Anansa, after a lone skinny-dip, is kidnapped by slaver Suleiman (the always fantastic Peter Ustinov). David attempts to get her back with help from an anti-slave crusader (Rex Harrison), mercenary helicopter pilot (William Holden) and vengeful nomad Malik (Kabir Bedi) who has reasons of his own to track down Suleiman.

Of course, Ustinov and his crew are depicted in the most wretched way possible. Not only are they slavers - surely that fact alone would be enough to set them well clear from the audience's sympathies - but they have a penchant for raping the underage boys of their stock when the mood arises. So, get that, alright? They're slavers and rapists and pedophiles. Just so you know, they're the bad guys.

Interest is maintained early on thanks to the relish of seeing screen legends like Holden (an all-too-brief appearance), Harrison and Ustinov, as well as Johnson's brief but full-frontal nude scene. Once Ashanti settles into follow-the-girl mode, it becomes only sporadically interesting, with Michael Caine proving to be a dull lead, completely outshone by Kabir Bedi's earnest and occasionally ruthless mercenary. Caine has since claimed that Ashanti is his worst film, an eyebrow-raising statement when you consider some of the crud on his C.V. (Jaws The Revenge, surely outranks this in terms of stinkiness). But it has to be said that Ashanti is surprisingly bland whenever Ustinov or Johnson (who actually acquits herself quite well, better than Caine at least) aren't onscreen.

And the whole brouhaha about the story? Bah. Ashanti may cruise on a wave of self-inflated controversy, given its slavery-in-the-modern-era storyline, but it's pretty anaemic when you actually see the final film. Exploitative elements are minimised or otherwise hinted at. Violence is minimal. Really, it's pretty tame, especially when compared to Mandingo or, God forbid, something that is actually infamous (and rightly so) like Goodbye Uncle Tom. And despite its claims that a lot of the film is grounded in reality, there are some strange moments that take you out of the film: to name two, Caine's eye-rolling sequence with a camel which I assume was meant to be comedic but instead falls completely flat, and there's a weird witch doctor segment involving a kid and one of the slavers that feels utterly out of place. And the finale on board a private yacht owned by Omar Sharif unfortunately recalls the end of Taken, despite this film being the older of the two, and probably make most viewers wish they were watching that film instead of this one.

Ashanti isn't that bad, really. It's entertaining enough, and some of the locations are eye-catching, as is Johnson. And Peter Ustinov doing a dodgy Middle-Eastern accent is worth a few bonus points in my book. But if the filmmakers had more courage they could have mined the story for stronger material and come up with a more shocking and compelling tale instead of this stock-standard boy-loses-girl story.
The Disc
Severin has unleashed Ashanti on Blu-Ray and DVD in a joint package with a less-than-pristine transfer. Okay, you factor in the film's age and it could get a pass, but there is a distinct lack of detail in many scenes, and excessive, annoying noise in the outdoors scenes, particularly obvious whenever there's a shot of the sky or sand (i.e. most of the film). It's a bright and colourful picture, but not particularly attractive, if that makes sense. The English Mono track suffices as far as clear dialogue goes, but it's not especially memorable in any way. As far as the DVD goes, the same applies as with the Blu-Ray, except of course with far less definition and quality.

The only feature on the disc other than a Theatrical Trailer is the Beverly Johnson on Ashanti interview. Beverly - who still looks amazing at whenever time this was shot - recalls, with some directness, her experiences on the film set, working with screen legends Caine, Harrison, Holden, Sharif and Ustinov, and tells some interesting stories about doing her own stunts, naming her daughter after her character, dealing with being pregnant on-set, and saving her own stuntwoman. She's quite upfront about some things, such as her (now ex-) husband's affairs with other members of the crew and a bizarre episode where she is attacked by her husband's masseuse, gets arrested for assault and attends a courtroom where everyone sits on the floor. It's a great interview once you get past Johnson's initial tendency to big-note herself.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
áAshanti attempted to buy into the same controversy that made Mandingo a hit, but the results proved to be far less sensational or interesting. Despite the wealth of big-name stars, this action-adventure is pedestrian in almost every respect. Thanks to some attractive scenery and the talents of Peter Ustinov and Beverly Johnson, Ashanti isn't quite the dog that star Michael Caine makes it out to be. The opportunity was there for this to be something truly special, which perhaps is its greatest disappointment.
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