Monday, February 22, 2016

Retro Review: CASABLANCA EXPRESS (1989)

(Italy - 1989; US release 1990)

The great Sergio Martino's exceptionally late-to-the-party entry in the post-DIRTY DOZEN, WWII "men on a mission" subgenre, CASABLANCA EXPRESS plays like a hopelessly dated relic from two decades earlier and could pass for a made-for-TV movie were it not for some fleeting female nudity and some occasionally enthusiastic blood squibs. Looking like an Italian community theater version of THE TRAIN or VON RYAN'S EXPRESS, the film is set in Morocco in late 1942 and deals with a German plot to abduct Winston Churchill by hijacking a train bound for a summit with FDR. A joint operation between American, British, and French military headed by, respectively, General Williams (Glenn Ford), Colonel Bats (Donald Pleasence, saddled with his silliest character name since playing "Senator Blaster" in Bruno Mattei's 1987 Miles O'Keeffe actioner DOUBLE TARGET), and Major Valmore (Jean Sorel), assigns British spy Cooper (Jason Connery, son of Sean) and American officer Capt. Franchetti (Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony) to handle security. Double-crosses, treachery from within, and spy games ensue, with lots of explosions and gunplay as the good guys take on evil Germans led by the villainous Von Tiblits (Manfred Lehman of CODENAME: WILDGEESE) before a ridiculous and somewhat infuriating twist ending.

Considering the plethora of Vietnam movies and B-grade Namsploitation being made in the late '80s, a largely old-fashioned WWII throwback seems a little odd for the time, with the resulting film so cheap-looking that you might almost be convinced it's been on the shelf for 15 years if you don't notice how rough Ford looks. He was known for openly expressing contempt toward some of his later films that he felt were beneath him (he got pissed off and punched an assistant director on the 1981 slasher classic HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME), and with bloodshot eyes and several flubbed lines, he seems a little wobbly here (watch for the bit where he's mumbling "There's two (pause) one hundred people on that train," and looks blearily at Pleasence). Lehmann is a stereotypically cartoonish Nazi bad guy, exclaiming "Heil, Hitler!" as he's about to blow up the train and fails (of course, Connery responds by quipping "Up Hitler's ass!" before blowing him away). Quinn, one of the few young co-stars of the Oscar-winning PLATOON whose career didn't get a bump from it, found a lot of work in Italy around this time and gets to display some of his pop's intensity and gravitas but he fared better in Antonio Margheriti's "Rambo saves the rain forest" adventure INDIO the same year. By contrast, the bland Connery, a British Chad McQueen if you will, inherited none of his dad's screen presence and is as uncharismatic as can be, so much so that if Sean actually bothered watching this, he'd be justified in requesting a paternity test. CASABLANCA EXPRESS, written by Martino and Eurocult genre vet Ernesto Gastaldi, went straight-to-video in the US and is never egregiously bad, but it just sorta plods along and brings nothing new to the table, curiously playing like an overly earnest 1960s war movie but with no retro charm and the big-name guest stars slumming a little more than usual. Hollywood legend Ford worked very sparingly after his brief but memorable turn as Pa Kent in 1978's SUPERMAN. He lived until 2006, but CASABLANCA EXPRESS was one of his last films before retiring from acting in 1991. (Unrated, 84 mins)

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