When I set on writing about 1979’s Ashanti, I was initially daunted. Not because of any issues of complex plot or obtuse dialogue, which are missing anyways, but due to one bit of research that turned up in my pre-planning notes. The bone chilling information in question, courtesy of IMDB, is that star Michael Caine has been quoted stating that it was of the worst films he has ever worked on. We’re talking in the top three and while Caine is undoubtedly a great actor, but he also undoubtedly has starred in a healthy amount of cinematic bunkum. So when the actor who has been in Jaws: The Revenge is saying something is bad, you understand my reticence.
After mustering up some reviewer fortitude, I popped in Severin’s lush Blu-ray edition of Ashanti and gave her a go. Much to my relief, it wasn’t nearly as bad as Jaws: The Revenge, which is a blessing. Albeit a small one, but a blessing nonetheless. Ashanti, based on the Alberto Vazquez-Figueroa novel Ebano, deals with the theme of modern day slave trading in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Working for the World Health Organization, Dr. David Linderby (Michael Caine) and his wife, Dr. Anansa Linderby (supermodel and first African-American to ever grace the cover of Vogue, Beverly Johnson), are working on inoculations in a small village in Africa. As the natives start to dance, David stays to take some photos, while Anansa goes off for a nude swim while. By herself, which seems like an incredibly bad idea masquerading as a potential plot device. The potential part pays off quite quickly as she gets kidnapped by the smarmiest slave trader this side of Mandingo, Suleiman (Peter Ustinov).
Assuming that Anansa was just a beautiful local, Suleiman (pronounced soo-lay-mon) soon realizes that while her heritage is with the Ashanti tribe (hence the title), she is not only a born and bred American, but she also works for the United Nations. A smarter villain would have either let her go or disposed of her immediately, but then we would only have a 20 minute short as opposed to a movie approaching the two hour mark. Instead, he decides to try to sell her to the highest bidder. David goes on a hunt for his wife and with the aid of the aging but still dashing Rex Harrison, ends up getting help from both a grizzled mercenary, Jim or as I like to call him, Merc Jim (William Holden) and most importantly Malik (Kabir Bedi). But more on him in a second.
Time starts to run out as Suleiman gets closer to the market, hoping to sell Anansa off to a wealthy Prince (Omar Sharif). Will David be able to rescue his wife and spare her the indignity of having to get friendly with the Prince’s crypt-keeper-like father?
Ashanti is a film whose ambitions are never quite met, but yet doesn’t sink completely under its weight. The pros include some gorgeous cinematography, with the blue skies and earth tones of the landscape really popping, all thanks to the director of photography, Aldo Tonti, who worked with both Frederico Fellini and Luciano Visconti. Some of the acting is good, with Johnson standing out, despite being the acting acolyte surrounded by a veritable buffet of seasoned character actors. Harrison and Holden both are solid, as usual. Caine, who is typically a great actor, seems only halfway committed to the character. Granted, given some of the hokey dialogue he has to say, his lack of enthusiasm is understandable. Sharif’s role is essentially an extended cameo and Ustinov’s Suleiman is one of the greasiest portrayals of an Arab ever.
The real star of Ashanti is Kabir Bedi as the golden-eyed, vengeful Malik. His character is the most compelling, involving a backstory where his wife was raped and murdered by Suleiman, who also sold his two children into slavery. Since then, Malik has made it his life’s mission to avenge his family. All of this torment and grief has made the formidable Malik one helluva a badass, kicking mucho-macho slave-trading booty. Bedi has such incredible charisma and physical presence that as soon as he shows up, milquetoast David just fades even more in the background. Ideally, the film should have revolved around Malik and his struggles. That would have made it an infinitely more interesting work.
Another element that hurts Ashanti is that it doesn’t quite know if it wants to be an sand, death & lurid behavior exploiter or a respectable, serious film about the then and now current topic of slave trading. There’s Anansa’s aforementioned skinny dipping and one particularly weird scene where a young boy screams while (off camera) being molested. Then there’s the poster art, which features a painting of Anansa shackled with her breasts halfway hanging out. I have zero problems with luridness in cinema but like any ingredient, you have to know exactly what you are working with and how to use it. Otherwise, you’re in danger of it either being too strong or too bland. Ashanti tends to fall into the latter.
That said, Ashanti does have its merits and is still a damn sight better than Jaws: The Revenge. Plus getting to see Kabir Bedi in action is worth a viewing alone.