Movie review: ‘Juggernaut’

Before “Speed” sent everyone looking for a mad bomber while trying to defuse a bomb on a bus, there was “Juggernaut,” a high-seas adventure where bombs are planted on an ocean liner. It takes a while to get rolling and this is the sign of a good motion picture. It isn’t some current-day action flick where the dialogue and story are just bridges from one CGI extravaganza to the next and “Juggernaut” takes off slowly, builds its suspend and is more than well worth the time you might spend on it.

‘Juggernaut’
(1974; 109 minutes; rated PG; directed by Richard Lester and starring Richard Harris, Omar Sharif and David Hemmings)

AFTER A SLOW START, ‘JUGGERNAUT’ BECOMES ONE

(NOTE: I expanded this review with a reorganization and the addition of additional opinion and trivia – along with the updating of links – on Aug. 11, 2017.)

A number of 1970s feature films today look like, well, 1970s TV shows: The sets are basic; the visuals are basic (thank goodness for today’s CGI when it’s used correctly), the action, if you can call it that, is basic. However, filmmakers weren’t challenged to keep your attention by forcing the pace (thank you TV’s “Columbo”) and there’s real writing to the scripts. So, today here is one example: “Juggernaut” from 40 years ago is watchable and you could find worse ways to past just over 1½ hours.

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Headliner Richard Harris and director Richard Lester make the difference in “Juggernaut,” which is the story of a bomber who puts seven large explosive devices aboard the fictional ocean liner “Britannic” and tries to extort £500,000 from the shipping company. Once the “Britannic” is at sea, the mastermind, who called himself “Juggernaut,” begins his extortion and authorities try to identify and find him as well as send a demolition team headed by Harris to the ship to try to defuse the bombs.

While much of the first part of the film doesn’t measure up to even mediocre TV movies today, the bomb disposal scenes between Harris, his deputy and back at headquarters on land (they’re hooked together by radio) are just tight, gripping and what should make you watch “Juggernaut.”

Note to potential viewers: Don’t be discouraged by the slow pace early in the film; it picks up pace nicely (spotlighting Harris’ considerable talent) and Lester knows how to build to a climax.

Let’s take a look at some of the principal cast:

  • Solidifying the top of the cast is Hollywood legend and Oscar nominee (not for this one) Omar Sharif, who plays “Capt. Alex Brunel” the ship’s captain, who does an turn going from elegant to troubled to forceful with impeccable timing. However, with this large cast, he doesn’t get as much time as he deserved. Sharif’s work here is good, but certainly not equal to his roles in the better known “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”,” and the latter earned him his nomination. I liked that he did a small part a decade after “Juggernaut” in the wonderfully underrated comedy “Top Secret!” (click here for my review). Sharif died at 83 of a heart attack in 2015.
  • Also performing with distinction is a young “Hannibal-to-be” and Oscar winner and three-time nominee (not for this one) Anthony Hopkins as “Superintendent John McLeod” of Scotland Yard, a police supervisor in charge of finding the mad bomber. Hopkins is like a thoroughbred racehorse on display … he does a good job, but it’s limited by the script. Besides his Oscar-winning tour-de-force in “The Silence of the Lambs” (click here for my review) and its sequels, Hopkins has done “The Elephant Man,” “Nixon” and a string of other film and TV roles.
  • Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Harris plays “Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Fallon” and appears insouciant while being deadly serious as the leader of a bomb squad: he’ll take a drink with the captain in the middle of a mission, enjoys his pipe while disarming a bomb all the while focused solely on his duty. You’ll probably recognize Harris most for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (he was “Dumbledore”). I liked him in “Gladiator” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” About the worst on his sterling resume is the stinker called “The Wild Geese” (click here for my review) about mercenary soldiers. He died in 2002 at 72 of Hodgkin’s Disease.
  • Although he’s second-billed in “Juggernaut,” David Hemmings as Harris’ deputy “Charlie Braddock” doesn’t account for much and I’m not sure why I’m even writing about his work here. Hemmings was also in “Gladiator” as well as “The Gangs of New York” and “Blow-Up” (the title of the 1960s film is a bit prophetic for him here). He died in 2002 at 63 of a heart attack.
  • SPOILER ALERT: Certainly better than Hemmings here is British character actor Freddie Jones, who has notched more than 200 acting credits over a six-decade career and plays “Sidney Buckland,” who is “Juggernaut,” the disaffected former bomb squad mentor to Harris. Jones does a solid job, first conning Scotland Yard that he doesn’t know about the bombs and then when he’s found out. Perfect casing for this role, I’d say. Jones was in “The Elephant Man” with Hopkins a well as being a bright spot in Clint Eastwood’s Cold War thriller “Firefox” and the sci-fi disappointment that is “Dune.” SPOILER ALERT ENDS
  • As for the love interest, Shirley Knight, who was in “Grandma’s Boy” (not the kind of movie you’d think she’d sign on for – click here for my review), “As Good as it Gets” and “If These Walls Could Talk,” is the relationship issue faced by Sharif but this subplot doesn’t really take off and adds nothing to the overall quality of the film. It’s too bad since she has been twice nominated for Oscars (“The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” and “Sweet Bird of Youth”) and has real talent.
  • The most pleasant surprise performance from the cast is Roy Kinnear, who plays ship’s “Social Director Curtain.” While he does his best with passengers under difficult circumstances at best, his character ultimately shows depth, real wit and courage. Great choice here and no doubting his talent. Kinnear was in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” “Watership Down” and the “Beatles’” “Help!” He died in 1988 of a heart attack at age 54.

The film is also a reminder just how lax by today’s standards security was in the transportation sector. The large 55-gallon drums were smuggled aboard (one character notes, “no security” and that they don’t check what’s going aboard) and as the ship sails visitors are reminded to go ashore. Remember, no pre-sailing visitors aboard cruise ships today. The vessel itself shows how dated the film, as its accommodations and activities, while quite luxurious at the time, look inadequate by even the most common of today’s cruise ship accommodations.

Lester, who also directed “The Three Musketeers” (1973’s absolutely wonderful version and its sequel the next year, which are good ones and not the crappy one with Charlie Sheen and Keifer Sutherland) and “Superman II” and another of the superhero flicks, knows his craft. On the detail side, one cute shot is of a pinball game called “Shipwreck.” I guess Lester has a sense of humor as well as an eye for detail.

If you have read some of my reviews, you’ll see that I like to point out actors who would go on to make or have had been on an episode of “The Love Boat” (click here for my look at that fine TV series). Given the nature and year of this film, I couldn’t resist checking resumes of the primary cast. Guess what? Not a single one later did an episode of “The Love Boat.” Sigh!

Juggernaut” was far out of the top 10 films for 1974 as a quick check of its Wiki entry does not list or opine about its ticket sales total. Another internet source labeled it a “flop” at the box office. The No. 1 film of the year was the spectacularly funny and now legendary and iconic “Blazing Saddles” (click here for my review) from Mel Brooks with $119.5 million, followed by the big-screen, big-cast spectacle of “The Towering Inferno” with $116 million. Here are the films from 1974 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Clifton James, who played the redneck sheriff in back-to-back 007 films (“Live and Let Die” – click here for my review – and “The Man with the Golden Gun” in 1973-74 – click here for my review) as well as a more dramatic and well-received turn in the classic “Cool Hand Luke” with Paul Newman, plays a politician on board who knows how to cut to the chase. James was another wise selection for this cast.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The film took its inspiration from an incident which occurred in 1972 when a man claimed he had planted a bomb on board the QE2 and demanded a ransom. Cunard were prepared to pay the ransom, but the British Government decided instead to send in soldiers of the Special Boat Service who parachuted into the North Atlantic 1000 miles from the UK and boarded the QE2 to search for the device. The threat turned out to be a hoax and the FBI later caught the culprit.”
  • Lester was the third director to work on the project and rewrote the script with a writer different from the earlier work.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The film was shot mainly aboard a real ocean liner. The Hamburg had recently been sold by its German owners to the Soviet Union. Before the Soviets took delivery of the liner, they rented it to the film company. The liner was painted in the livery of a fictional shipping line, very similar to the livery used by the Soviet Morpasflot line, and renamed the Britannic. Advertisements were run in British papers, soliciting extras who would take a lengthy cruise in the North Sea for free, but with the knowledge that the ship would actually seek out the worst possible weather, as the story demanded seas too rough for the lifeboats to be lowered, trapping the passengers on board.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2017.
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