In ‘Juggernaut’ a Ship Is in Peril, But Do You Care?

As much as Richard Lester throws the audience into the action, we have no reason to care about the fate of any of the passengers of the SS Britannic.

Juggernaut is a perfectly serviceable, perfectly forgettable little British thriller from 1974 that features a memorable setting and strong cast. Nevertheless, in spite of its strong points, it is hampered by its wafer-thin characterization and lack of visual pizzazz. Primarily of interest due to its propensity of familiar faces popping up unexpectedly, the movie delivers moderate thrills at best.

Capably if unspectacularly directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Muskateers) Juggernaut tells the story of the maiden voyage of passenger liner Britannic, a luxury liner filled with an array of predictable types and captained by the smoldering, heavy-lidded Omar Sharif. The movie makes only slight pretense at establishing anybody’s character in any but the broadest of terms: there is the overeager ship’s steward, the seasick mom and her two young children, the Indian waiter, and numerous other passengers and crew.

Things get considerably more interesting once an anonymous bomb threat gets phoned in to the shipping company’s brass, setting into motion a chain of events that form the core of the story. The Britannic, it turns out, is carrying no fewer than seven powerful bombs, any one of which is capable of blowing a hole in the hull beneath the waterline and sinking the ship. Taken together, the effect would be catastrophic, and immediate. The bombs are all primed to go off simultaneously, sixteen hours or so hence. (If you’re wondering how these large pieces of deadly explosive got installed on a state-of-the-art passenger liner, well… that’s never really addressed.)

The British government’s response is to fly ace bomb-defuser Anthony Fallon to the Britannic to do his work. Played by Richard Harris, Fallon is a wise-cracking stiff upper-lip type, cool under fire and as deadpan as he is unflappable. Harris is the star attraction here, and his presence is enjoyable, if not particularly memorable. He is supported well by the rest of his squad, who make little impression despite the fact that they are routinely placed in mortal danger.

This is probably the biggest weakness of the film: with virtually no time whatever given over to establishing character, the dire situations and occasionally fatal developments scattered throughout the movie carry little weight. The viewer is thrust into the action, which is all fine, but the result of that abruptness is that we have little reason to care for any of these people, apart from the fact that, you know, it would suck to be on a cruise ship rigged to explode.

This lack of character is most pronounced in two key areas. The land-bound Scotland Yard investigator assigned to the case, played by a dashing Anthony Hopkins, is in charge of rooting out the titular mad bomber. Moreover, he has a vital interest in the outcome of the affair, as his wife and children are on board. However, this connection is barely touched upon in the film, despite being established at the outset and mentioned briefly later on. If Hopkins has any particular concern about his loved ones being placed in mortal peril, he never shows it. Sure, he looks glum, but his facial expression is more suggestive of a disappointing meal than the death of his nearest and dearest.

Even more egregious is the revelation concerning the bomber himself. The motivation supplied for a man who is willing to murder 1200 people is unconvincing, to put it mildly. The justification is even more bewildering given the murderer’s previous employment, which also accounts for his explosives expertise.

Despite these flaws, Juggernaut is a harmless enough way to while away an afternoon. Harris, Hopkins and Sharif are all arresting when onscreen, and the tension intrinsic in a “hey, this bomb might go off” scenario is tough to screw up. The film handles it decently enough, and throws a few curveballs along the way to keep the audience tense.

Kino Lorber’s bare-bones production brings the film to Blu-ray, but offers no extras other than a theatrical trailer. The movie will likely appeal to fans of classic thrillers, even though this film hasn’t quite earned “classic” status. Movie buffs raised on edgier fare might find this one to be rather on the tame side, though.

RATING 6 / 10