Briskly entertaining, shallow, and slightly trashy, Ashanti hides its lurid nature behind a veneer of social relevance—since the thriller concerns modern-day slavery in Africa, ponderous opening text suggests the film will be a serious exposé, when in fact Ashanti is simply an old-fashioned potboiler. Taken for what it is, however, the picture is fun to watch (or least as much fun as a movie exploring distasteful subject matter can be), because it boasts ample star power, exotic locations, and a zippy storyline. Sure, some of the plot twists are a bit convenient, but not to such a degree that they disrupt the B-movie flow of what’s happening.
Michael Caine stars as Dr. David Linderby, a World Health Organization physician working in a remote African village with his beautiful, African-born wife, Anansa (Beverly Johnson). Because Anansa is black and dressed in regional clothing, she’s mistaken for a local girl by an Arabian slaver, Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), whose minions kidnaps her along with several villagers. The movie then cuts back and forth between Anansa’s attempts to escape captivity and David’s efforts to rescue his bride. David’s principal accomplice is a mysterious Brit named Brian Walker (Rex Harrison), who introduces David to a series of mercenary helpers; eventually, Brian puts David together with Malik (Kabir Bedi), a nomad who wants revenge against Suleiman for the death of his family.
As directed by the versatile Richard Fleischer, Ashanti zooms along from one colorful episode to the next, with Ustinov’s flamboyant performance providing the main driving force. Cooing his lines in a mellifluous accent and peppering his savagery with courtly manners, Ustinov makes Suleiman into an oversized villain straight out of a comic book. Bedi counters him nicely with steely-eyed intensity, and Johnson—famous offscreen as the world’s first black supermodel—smartly operates within her comfort zone of evocative poses and intense glances. Harrison, William Holden, and Omar Sharif provide the comfort of familiar faces during their brief appearances.
And if Caine gets a bit lost in the shuffle for much of the movie—Ashanti was made around the time he segued to phone-it-in mode for popcorn pictures—that’s fine because he brings the requisite action-hero heat during the pulpy climax. To be clear, Ashanti isn’t special or even all that credible, but it accomplishes everything it sets out to accomplish and it ends before wearing out its welcome. When a movie has nothing to say (despite any intimations to the contrary), there’s a lot to be said for efficiency.