Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Movie Review: The Cassandra Crossing (1976)


A prosaic disaster movie, The Cassandra Crossing is filled with familiar names struggling against a mundane plot and listless execution.

In Geneva, terrorists break into the United States sector of the International Health Organization and attempt to blow up the building. They are thwarted, but not before releasing a secret strain of plague. One terrorist comes in contact with the disease and quickly becomes sick then dies. His partner is infected but escapes, and boards the train to Stockholm. U.S. Colonel Stephen Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) sets up command at the IHO to respond to the emergency.

On board the train with the escaped terrorist is Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris) and his ex-wife Jennifer (Sophia Loren), the elderly Herman Kaplan (Lee Strasberg), undercover detective Haley (O.J. Simpson), the very rich Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner) and her toy boy Robby (Martin Sheen), a group of young travelers including folk singer Susan (Ann Turkel), and the conductor Max (Lionel Stander). As the disease spreads among the passengers, Chamberlain tries to control the outbreak, while MacKenzie plots a way to isolate the train and cover-up the whole incident. He orders that the train be diverted to an isolation camp in Poland, which will require using a dangerous, unmaintained bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing.

Co-produced by England's Sir Lew Grade and Italy's Carlo Ponti, The Cassandra Crossing collects former A-List stars in a career lull (Lancaster, Loren, Gardner, Harris) and mixes them with B-List wannabes (Simpson, Turkel) and adds just the single star-to-be (Sheen). There is enough talent on display to maintain a bare minimum of interest and engagement, the likes of Lancaster and Loren taking the project seriously enough to marginally compensate for the prevailing absurdity.

The script by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz and director George Pan Cosmatos conjures up a sophomoric disaster idea from the tired segment of the cycle. This is a film in which none of the important plot points are actually explained. Among the many questions left to the imagination are the reasons behind the opening raid on the International Health Organization, a description of the actual substance causing the plague, and the lines of authority that could possibly allow MacKenzie to be the only one handling a crisis involving a thousand people, dozens of nationalities and the borders of several sovereign nations.

Rather than delve into substance, Cosmatos passes the time with plenty of artistic shots of the train streaking through the European scenery, because not much is going on inside the train. The plague spreads and passengers get sick, and this simple premise has to sustain the narrative for about 90 minutes. There are no rescue attempts or heroics, just MacKenzie seemingly intent on ensuring that the train heads to the most derelict bridge on the continent, and Chamberlain running from car to car on the train trying to appear useful.

Cosmatos tries to stir up some tension with limp on-board subplots, like the horny couple trying to make out, the detective hounding a drug smuggler, the Holocaust survivor who does not want to return to Poland, and most unconvincingly, the banter between the Chamberlains. A kid and a nun are thrown in to complete the set of stereotypes. None of it takes hold, and the passengers remain a collection of actors thrown together with the promise of a pay cheque at the end of the trip.

The film's final 30 minutes veer towards the ridiculous, the train turning into a war zone as passengers take on moon suit equipped soldiers in an old-fashioned automatic rifle fight. The demise of the train cannot come quickly enough, and when it does, the special effects are toy set quality. The Cassandra Crossing, as it turns out, can barely carry its own weight.






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