Wednesday, 4 March 2015

JUGGERNAUT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Gritty 70s Disaster Film, Richard Lester - style!!!

Juggernaut (1974)
Dir. Richard Lester
Starring: Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, David Hemmings,
Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, Clifton James, Roy Kinnear,
Freddie Jones, Roshan Seth, Caroline Mortimer, Simon MacCorkindale, Cyril Cusack

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night) could always be counted upon to sweep away every vile, matted clump of dust bunnies amassing and fouling all the nooks and crannies of pretty much any traditional approach to cinematic storytelling. What he does for the moronic disaster film genre of the 70s in Juggernaut, is nothing short of a miracle. With the force of an entire army of Hoovers, he sucks every vile particle of cliche, leaving only the barest bones of necessary structure to build something altogether fresh, funny and exciting.

With the full support of executive producer David Picker, Lester took writer-producer Richard Alan Simmons' screenplay (inspired by the real-life hijacking of the QE II luxury liner) and polished it within an inch of its life with a brilliant uncredited rewrite with his old pal and favourite script doctor, the legendary British playwright and television writer Alan Plater. (Simmons was so upset, he took his name off the film and chose the onscreen monicker Richard DeKoker, itself a cleverly sarcastic play on the word used to define a standardized shipping container which could handily transport its contents from one conveyor of carriage to another.)

Thick skin, however, is a prerequisite for moviemaking and Simmons/DeKoker can be grateful to Lester for initiating the superb on-the-page rethink of the material. Deftly and efficiently dealing with a huge cast of characters against the backdrop of a major disaster on the high seas allowed Lester as a director to fashion one corker of a pulse-pounding thriller.

The "juggernaut" of the title refers to a couple of key elements. First and foremost is the obvious use of the word to describe the massive cruise ship SS Britannic which is ably commandeered by dashing Captain Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago) as it plunges through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic. Secondly, though, the word has been nicely co-opted by the Irish-lilted voice belonging to a mad bomber psycho (the great character actor Freddie Jones, whom many will recall as the vicious sleaze bag in David Lynch's The Elephant Man). Juggernaut has nefariously outfitted the full ship of innocent passengers with several metal drums, all containing timed explosives which have been booby-trapped to explode if tinkered with.

The ship's chief executive officer (Ian Holm) is keen to pay the ransom, but the Government of Dear Old Blighty will have none of it as they refuse to negotiate with common miscreants engaged in criminal/terrorist behaviour. It's up to the head man at Scotland Yard (Anthony Hopkins) to race against time to track down Juggernaut on land and the British Navy's top explosive experts (Richard Harris and David Hemmings) and their formidable team to be dropped into the icy, turbulent waters to board ship and defuse the bombs.

Though the movie pays a bit of lip service to the Grand Hotel-style melodrama of disaster movie trappings (Shirley Knight can't seem to get a commitment from her lover and Anthony Hopkins' annoying wife and children are on board the ship), Lester focuses on the nail-biting mechanics of the bomb squad and Scotland Yard. Adding gloriously to the mix is the character of the ship's entertainment coordinator (played by Lester's good luck charm, the good humoured, roly poly Roy Kinnear) who insanely keeps arranging dances and bingo tournaments, etc. for the ship's passengers who become well aware of the dire circumstances when one of the bombs is ignited as a show of force.

The film includes a perfect thematic subtext involving the shoddy treatment of Britain's war veterans and how this narratively dovetails into an intelligently-wrought bit of cat and mouse twixt the mad bomber and the bomb expert who share a very close connection.

Juggernaut is a magnificent suspense thriller which suppresses its disaster film roots and always keeps us gnawing at our fingernails until we begin ripping away at the cuticles and fleshy bits, all this tempered by some delectable dollops of gallows humour. Amazingly, there's nothing in the film on any level of both art and craft which feels dated and frankly, one could imagine it opening theatrically today as a brand new film and playing quite perfectly (especially given contemporary political and social strife).

Then again, that's Richard Lester - always ahead of the curve and his time.

God bless, Richard Lester. God bless him, everyone!


Juggernaut is available on a nicely transferred Blu-Ray disc via Kino-Lorber. Alas, it is bereft of any extras which, given the film's importance within Lester's canon, could have at least used a solid essay booklet or even commentary track. For now, though, the film's so terrific, it alone will more than suffice.