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The 1974 UA picture Juggernaut is a basic bomb-defusing thriller spiced with the twist that the bombs are on an ocean liner filled with passengers. Director Richard Lester reportedly came in at the 11th hour and rewrote the script, prompting writer-producer Richard Alan Simmons to have his name removed. But we love the final result - Juggernaut was hailed by critics as a superior entertainment. In a gloriously optimized new widescreen transfer, it now comes off as a nail-biter packed with top actors in interesting roles. It's such a good ride that we feel a loss when it's over -- we'd be ready for another hour with these characters, even if they were to just sit around drinking coffee and exchanging small talk.
The story unfolds without a single slack scene. Scotland Yard Superintendant John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins, young and fresh) waves his farewells to his wife and children, who are leaving on the dazzling white cruise ship Brittanic. On board, the social director Curtain (Lester fave Roy Kinnear) works hard to cheer the passengers, but has little success because gale force weather is expected for the whole trip and the ship is rolling badly because its new gyro compensators aren't working. The crew is further inconvenienced by other half-completed refitting work. Captain Alex Brunel (Omar Sharif) has invited his lover Barbara Bannister (Shirley Knight) for the voyage; she's one of the few passengers not struck seasick. The officers on the bridge are impressed when news comes back that Bannister is sleeping in the Captain's cabin. Porter Azad (Roshan Seth of A Passage to India) helps out the seasick Mrs. McLeod by looking for her son, who is wandering below decks.
Everything changes when a man who calls himself 'Juggernaut' contacts the ship's managing director Nicholas Porter (Ian Holm). For a payment of $500,000 dollars, Juggernaut will remotely neutralize seven bombs he has placed on the ship. Within a couple of hours, special Navy bomb squad expert Lt. Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris) and his team are on a plane headed out to sea. Because the stormy conditions rule out using the lifeboats or approaching by sea, Fallon and his crew must skydive into the water like frogmen and drag heavy equipment containers to the ship's ladders. Back in London John McLeod runs about checking up on likely mad bomber suspects. Lives will be lost just getting the bomb squad on board. Fallon and his first assistant Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings) examine the seven oil drums containing the bombs and find that they have been rigged by an especially gifted expert. And only a couple of hours remain before Juggernaut sends everybody to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Juggernaut is one of Richard Lester's best pictures and proof that his capabilities extend beyond '60s pop comedies and his slapstick Musketeers movies. Without affecting the film's serious thriller aspects, Lester weaves a thread of subtle humor throughout, from the mumbled comments of the crew to observations of how the passengers are affected by the rolling decks in the high seas. While Sharif and his crew work feverishly to secure the bombs -- which might be set off simply by the boat's pitching in the waves -- we see everyone involved making the best of the emergency. The porter Azad disguises his nervousness. Passenger Corrigan (Clifton James, the redneck "Sheriff Pepper" from two James Bond movies) is a mayor of an American city who notices that the ship is sailing in circles. Instead of getting hysterically unreasonable, Corrigan accepts that the First Officer must politely lie to him about what is happening. Nobody panics; we instead see the tension rise in passengers' faces as the ordeal wears on. It's perhaps hardest on social director Roy Kinnear, whose every effort to raise spirits falls totally flat.
The tense scenes of negotiation and decision-making back in London are also played without histrionics. Company exec Ian Holm is appalled by the government's request that he not pay the extortion money, as a matter of principle. Cop Anthony Hopkins creates a complex character with little more than a series of concerned, exhausted faces. he tries not to let his feelings interfere, and initially doesn't even tell his associates that his family is on the Britannic. Attempts to trace Juggernaut lead to frustrating dead ends.
The actual bomb defusing scenes successfully focus our attention for minutes on a couple of square inches of electrical wiring and clockwork that Richard Harris finds inside one of the steel drums. As with the rest of the film's excellent dialogue, the morbid banter between Harris and David Hemmings brings us deeper into the technical problem.
Richard Lester clearly had full access to the talent and resources needed to pull off this epic show. Special effects names are included in the credits but the parachuting frogmen and the ship at sea in stormy conditions appear to be completely 'for real'. For basic credibility, the movie beats out the melodramatic Andrew L. Stone ship disaster thriller The Last Voyage. There are casualties among the frogmen as well as the sailors that set out in a boat to help pick them up. The sea is just too choppy to put the passengers into lifeboats; the Captain estimates that half of them would be lost.
Lester clearly has a great affection for his actors. Juggernaut wins us over with impressive character scenes, all played against expectations. Shirley Knight faces the danger with a calm smile. The usually clownish Roy Kinnear shapes up as a brave professional, and we want to applaud his efforts to cheer the passengers. That statement about the value of comedy pays off when Kinnear is rewarded with an affectionate dance with Ms. Knight. Likewise, neither is Clifton James called upon to play a goofy clown. He has a great moment when his wife of many years asks him if he's ever been unfaithful to her. We remember that, before he left to work in England, James played sensitive roles in independent American pictures like Robert Rossen's Lilith. First-billed star Richard Harris surprises us by turning defeatist at one point, deflating his 'heroic' role.
Since his family's lives are at stake, we expect cop Anthony Hopkins to go into post- 9/11- justified torture mode on jailed bomber Major O'Neill (Cyril Cusack). The old Irishman won't play ball:
"I don't care Johnny, I really don't care who gets blown up. I might know a few things, might tell you lies, tantalize you a bit. But I really don't care that much. It's all up here. In my head. And that's where it's staying".
It's a great speech. Hopkins knows there's no way he can force the man to help catch Juggernaut. Richard Lester must have talked Cyril Cusack into coming in special, as he's not billed.
Second-billed Omar Sharif underplays in the way that always looks as if his mind is really elsewhere, perhaps concentrating on a difficult problem in a game of bridge. Sharif is redeemed by the reliably interesting Shirley Knight. The exact relationship of her Mrs. Bannister to the Captain remains mysterious. She's convinced that he's an unfeeling loner, yet he does seem interested in sleeping with her.
Julian Glover, Jack Watson, Simon MacCorkindale and Michael Hordern appear in small roles. A major standout is twelfth-billed Freddie Jones, a favorite talent who made a great impact in everything from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed to Elephant Man, and is still working. Jones' character is courteous to Anthony Hopkins' team of detectives, until his simmering resentment comes to the surface. Acted and directed with great skill, the unpretentious Juggernaut leaves us wanting to learn more about its characters. Richard Lester's thriller is a pleasure to watch.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Juggernaut is a terrific encoding of this 1974 sleeper. Colors are strong and the soundtrack is busy with little added lines and other details, and the 1:85 framing focuses our attention on the drama.
Deluxe Digital's remastering of Juggernaut deserves praise, as does Kino Lorber's presentation. The original trailer included doesn't quite convey the film's special qualities.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Juggernaut Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.
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