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.