Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Casablanca Express (1988)

Kids play "War" (not the card game, although I suppose they do that, too), because the concept is the soul of simplicity itself. You get to wipe out your enemy (read: friends) through the deployment of stealth and/or superior firepower. The imaginary rivalry doesn't even need to be drawn along any sort of realistic lines. It doesn't have to be Allies versus Axis. It can just be (and often was) our team versus your team. May the best "men" win. You can't really have this sort of equality in games like "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians," where the notion itself implies a conflict of good versus evil (naturally, these values are mostly antiquated today). Plus, you got to shoot off (toy) machine guns (when they didn't have to be Technicolor because the world was far less insane and scary) and bazookas (read: sticks), and you even go to lob grenades (read: pine cones) and fulfill the ultimate fantasy of damn near every adolescent boy; you got to blow shit (imaginarily) up. I always get the same cathartic thrill when watching a Macaroni Combat film.

The time is November 1942. The place is North Africa. Sir Winston Churchill (before his knighthood, naturally, and played by John Evans) needs, for some nebulous reason or another, to get from Morocco to Casablanca. Major General Williams (Glenn Ford), Colonel Bats (Donald Pleasence), Colonel Del Croix (JRM Chapman), and Major Valmore (Jean Sorel, France's answer to Robert Wagner) are charged with the Prime Minister's security. To that end, they enlist British agent, Alan Cooper (Sean's son, Jason Connery), American Captain Franchetti (late son of Anthony, Francesco Quinn), and British Lieutenant Lorna Fisher (Jinny Steffan). In order to deceive the Axis opposition, led by Otto von Tiblis (Manfred Lehmann), the Allies put Churchill in a special car of the eponymous train and have his double (Phillip Vye) leave Morocco at the same time via plane (I assume, because we are never told outright nor do we see any of this happen onscreen). However, soon after the train departs the station, it is discovered that there is a double agent among the Allies, and Churchill's life and the lives of all the other people on the train (conveniently making up a nice little microcosm) are thrust into imminent danger.

Everyone knows who won World War Two (I mean, you do, right?). The final outcome has been preordained by history, and we all know how that outcome came down (unless you believe movies like Inglourious Basterds and The Madmen Of Mandoras are factual accounts). That's the big picture, but war (like the devil) is in the details, and the individual stories that make one up are less certain (think along the lines of the expression "we lost the battle but not the war"), unless they are heavily chronicled like the Battle of the Bulge and so forth. But a story's conclusion is especially uncertain when the storytellers use a war as a backdrop only. Then, the good guys don't have to win and/or make it out alive. This is also one of the main reasons why war films must often have major twists in them. For as much as kids can enjoy playing "War," it eventually gets old. Throwing curve balls at the audience is the cinematic method of maintaining interest in this regard.

Sergio Martino's film, Casablanca Express, then, uses one of the genre's favorite curve balls: the double agent. Granted, you would have to be pretty daft to not be able to parse out who the mole within the Allies is relatively quickly. Nevertheless, here's where the train and its microcosm of passengers come in. Sure, we know who the main Nazi is, and we know who the mole is, but what about the supposed civilians on the train? They all appear normal, but what lies beneath? Who can be trusted? This evokes the film's major theme of deception. The mole acts as an ally while colluding with the enemy. Churchill has a doppelganger that he uses to elude attack. There's even a couple of exchanges early on between Churchill and Williams in regards to who knew what about Pearl Harbor and when. In fact, the whole train and period setting summon up the feeling of an Agatha Christie mystery. To be sure, that elicitation is thin, but it is in there. 

In that respect, this is more an espionage film than a war film. Sure, there are Nazi soldiers getting mowed down by and mowing down good guys, but I feel in this instance you need to look no further than our main actor's pedigree as to the reason why. I think it's safe to say that Jason Connery has not achieved quite the level of success his father has (just ask Don Swayze, Chad McQueen, or Mike Norris), but his surname provides marquee value. This value is amplified if there is an actual blood connection to the celebrity insinuated in the advertising. This is the same reason Connery was not cast as a part of the British soldiery but as their "expert in impossible operations." This is also why the second-billed Quinn was cast as a more two-fisted man of strength. Where Cooper has wits, Franchetti has guts. The film's narrative plays off these two aspects. Franchetti gets to fight atop the moving train, while Cooper gets to infiltrate the guarded locomotive and disarm explosives (or start to, anyway). This is not a film of artillery bombarding a platoon of combatants. This is a film of interpersonal action and artifice.

Now that I've only scratched the surface on this subgenre and this film's place therein (or at least enough to only muddy the waters and aggravate the devotees of these types of film), I feel it incumbent upon me to address the technical aspects of this little opus. Martino has forever been a solid technical director. Even when the material is subpar, the man's talents are always on display. This is not to say he has a distinctive style, per se, but he has skill, and it is evident in Casablanca Express. During an early foot chase, he uses dolly shots intercut to great effect. Later on, he uses the same dolly to reframe action during long takes to provide shot variety without extra setups and editing. It's a technique used by some of the greats in cinema history (Woody Allen springs to mind, but feel free to add your own) and something fledgling filmmakers on a budget would do well to study, in my opinion. The action is well-choreographed and well-shot, and there are some hairy-looking stunts (notably in the train top scenes) that manufacture a good deal of tension. In all fairness, the film has its share of problems, but for an hour and a half of entertainment, I have certainly seen far worse war films.

MVT: The action is edgy enough and professionally done. Martino never loses sight of the importance of keeping the viewer involved during this type of scene, and it satisfies.

Make Or Break: Strictly on a technical level, the Moroccan chase is some grade A filmmaking (okay, maybe B+). Who would have thought that of an under-the-radar Macaroni Combat flick few people probably even know exists? But it's there (unless your standards are way higher than mine).

Score: 6.5/10

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