Michael Caine is a trea­sure of the film act­ing world, a gift­ed crafts­man who is capa­ble of bril­liance and has shown it in films as diverse as Get Carter, Deathtrap and Hannah And Her Sisters.  However, he’s also the clas­sic “work­ing actor” who enjoys liv­ing well and isn’t above tak­ing ques­tion­able gigs for the mon­ey: hence his appear­ances in films like Jaws 4: The Revenge, On Deadly Ground, etc.

He’s also not shy about admit­ting when he has done a gig for the movie.  An exam­ple that he’s com­plained about in pub­lic before is Ashanti, a trashy yet odd­ly opu­lent adven­ture he did in 1979.  It is essen­tial­ly an exploita­tion movie with a good bud­get and a bet­ter cast — but despite Caine’s reser­va­tions, Ashanti is enter­tain­ing in its own light­weight but skill­ful­ly craft­ed way.

The focus of Ashanti is the post-colo­nial slave trade in Africa, what might be ter­med human traf­fick­ing today.  Caine plays Dr. David Linderby, a physi­cian who accom­pa­nies his love­ly wife Anansa (Beverley Johnson) to a remote Africa vil­lage to do some doc­tor­ing work for the World Health Organization.  Anansa is of African descent and when she makes the mis­take of going for a swim on her own, she is kid­napped by a group of slavers led by the aging Suleiman (Peter Ustinov).

David turns to the local author­i­ties but finds them in denial about the exis­tence of mod­ern-day slav­ery as well as their abil­i­ties to guard again­st slavers. Thankfully, he is befriend­ed by Brian Walker (Rex Harrison), an anti-slav­ery oper­a­tive with con­nec­tions who is will­ing to help.  David sets to work hunt­ing for Suleiman with the help of mer­ce­nary copter pilot Sandell (William Holden) and venge­ful tribesman Malik (Kabir Bedi) — but if he doesn’t get to Anansa before Suleiman reach­es a slave trad­ing cen­ter near the Red Sea, he may nev­er see her again.

Despite some ges­tures toward expose-style social rel­e­vance, Ashanti is essen­tial­ly an adventure/chase flick that gets some exploita­tive spice from its slave-trade milieu.  There’s a bit of blood and a lit­tle nudi­ty (thanks to an impres­sive skin­ny-dip from Ms. Johnson) but the real­ly hard­core sleaze bits, like a slaver with a yen for lit­tle boys or a slave auc­tion where chil­dren are sold like live­stock, are han­dled with sug­ges­tion rather than explic­it shocks.  Moments like the­se are off­set with odd­ball, unex­pect­ed flour­ish­es like a death by voodoo doll and a played-for-laughs bit where Caine learns to ride a camel.

Chases and fights are the main order of the day in Ashanti and they are staged with a craftsman’s con­fi­dence by direc­tor Richard Fleischer, who knew a thing or two about slav­ery-themed movies after helm­ing Mandingo.  No mat­ter how sleazy the plot gets, he gives the pro­ceed­ings a classy Hollywood look (Aldo Tonti’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy is gor­geous) and keeps the two-hour run­ning time rolling out at a steady clip.  The third act is a bit rushed but that may be a reflec­tion of the script, which places the accent on action at the expense of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, the­me, etc. The end results aren’t rev­e­la­to­ry but they aren’t dull, either.

The best aspect of Ashanti is the cast, all of whom lean on their nat­u­ral charis­ma to keep this glossy-yet-sleazy enter­prise afloat.  Caine is on autopi­lot here, prob­a­bly because his hero role is bland­ly writ­ten, but he’s a pro and nev­er con­de­scends to the task at hand.  Johnson acquits her­self nice­ly in role that basi­cal­ly requires to be men­aced for most of her screen time.

The real enter­tain­ment comes from the sup­port­ing cast: Harrison shows sly wit in an expo­si­tion­al role, Holden offers a com­mit­ted turn in what amounts to a cameo and Ustinov camps it up in a know­ing­ly hilar­i­ous man­ner as the main slave trader.  Omar Sharif also turns up in the final stretch as charm­ing­ly sleazy prince who likes to buy pret­ty female slaves.  The big sur­prise here is Bedi, a future Bond vil­lain, who deliv­ers a legit­i­mate­ly strong dra­mat­ic per­for­mance amid­st all the campi­ness.

In short, Ashanti is a sleazy pro­gram­mer but it’s also bet­ter than its reviews would sug­gest.  Everyone involved knows they’re slum­ming but they also bring a lev­el of pro­fes­sion­al­ism to their work that jus­ti­fies the tidy pay­checks.  If you miss the days of all-star trash-o-ramas, Ashanti offers a suit­ably indul­gent way to get that fix.

Ashanti Trailer from Severin Films on Vimeo.