Juggernaut (Blu-ray Review)15 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, Anthony Hopkins.
Think of Philadelphia-born Richard Lester, and the first screen achievements that come to mind are his madcap British comedies (sub-category: two Beatles landmarks), comic swashbucklers or, for some, a pair of Superman sequels. But there are also personal favorites like Petulia (also the all-time favorite movie for 46 years of my closest friend), Robin and Marian, Cuba (which I’m happy to say is available in a Blu-ray import that plays on Region-A players) and this most atypical-for-Lester suspense thriller that breathes noteworthy life into an old formula.
It may have been a familiar premise plus a casting mix that doesn’t sound too marquee-great on paper (Richard Harris and Omar Sharif) that made Juggernaut more of a critics’ picture than mass-public magnet. Too bad, because there are touches throughout that I’m assuming were not in the original script by Richard de Koker (in reality, Richard Alan Simmons, whose dislike of script rewrites by late-hire Lester and Alan Plater found him opting out for a pseudonym in the opening credits). At very best, Simmons’ career work on the big screen was spotty, so the result truly may have been an example of successful Auteur Antics beyond the original intentions.
Inspired by a true-life incident that turned out to be a hoax, the Lester pic that ended up being chronologically sandwiched between the releases of those Three and Four Musketeers romps involves a ship destined to explode (see also Fire Down Below and The Last Voyage) — though in this case, the threatened ka-boom is intentional because someone with a whole bunch of knowledge has planted several explosive devices on board as part of a plot to extort 500,000 pounds. And as wretched fortune would have it, the passenger liner finds itself in such rocky waters (Lester has some throwaway fun with shuffleboard games) that lifeboats are rendered useless when it comes to simply abandoning ship.
Sharif is the ship’s captain having an on-board affair with a passenger (nice touch) and Harris the leader of a bomb crew that must somehow get on the vessel amid the same turbulent ocean before it can even begin to tinker with explosives that are so expertly put together that simply looking at the them in the wrong way might set them off. Meanwhile, the British government sticks to a policy of not paying ransom money for terrorism, which definitely hacks off Captain Sharif, to say nothing of ship execs back at the home office. Somewhat on the downside of his career when this film was made, Blow-up’s David Hemmings plays a Harris colleague tempting flop-sweat by trying to avoid a blow-up on ship. Definitely on career upside and in sympathetic roles are Ian Holm and an almost unrecognizable Anthony Hopkins, another of those cases where some of the casting means more now than it did then. The passenger staying in Sharif’s quarters is Shirley Knight, so memorable as George C. Scott’s wife in Petulia — that one is one of those movies where everyone else in it was as well.
What really takes Juggernaut beyond the expected is Roy Kinnear’s ticklish performance as the ship’s resident entertainer or morale officer, who puts on a some sometimes inappropriate happy face staging dances or calling out Bingo numbers amid impending doom — though in one scene he does let his guard down enough to admit that it isn’t always easy. Kinnear was a staple of Lester comedy going all the way back to the Beatles’ Help!, and it was his death in a freakish horse mishap while filming Lester’s The Return of the Musketeers in 1989 that reportedly took the fun out of filmmaking for one of the day’s most amusingly idiosyncratic directors and hastened his early retirement — a real pity and, for Lester fans, even a tragedy beyond the accident itself. Lester’s approach to Juggernaut suggests possible avenues of his career that were never tapped, and even the typically washed-out United Artists DeLuxe Color, which Blu-ray improves a little over DVD, can keep this from being a standout of its kind.