On board the ocean liner Brittanica, Captain Alex Brunel (Omar Sharif) is in charge of 1,200 passengers traveling from England to New York City. The ship is only a day or so removed from port when a message comes in. A terrorist identified only as Juggernaut has placed seven bombs on-board the ship. He's demanding a ransom of half a million pounds to be delivered by dawn the next morning. If he doesn't receive the money, the bombs will explode. Working against a clock, a bomb disposal team led by Lt. Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris) and right hand man, Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings), are flown in to defuse the bombs. Can they disarm them in time?
My usual picture of disaster movies is chaotic throngs of nameless individuals running around like their hair is on fire, old people and children trampled underfoot. Then Gene Hackman or Paul Newman steps to the forefront and saves the day, calming the masses with one soothing speech. In a lot of ways then, director Richard Lester has created the anti-disaster movie. A somber falls over the ship when the news of the bomb is released, the passengers realizing they can do nothing but sit back and wait, and hope. There is an almost documentary-like feel to Juggernaut, and a general low-key feeling of high-tension situation. It isn't the chaos or violence that erupts, but that sense of doom and dread knowing death waits with the sunrise. A disaster movie doesn't have to be aggressive and in your face to be effective. It just has to hit you emotionally in some way, and it does here. How would you respond in this dire situation?
Maybe Juggernaut doesn't have the huge names other disaster movies do, but it's still a memorable cast listing. More on Harris and Hemmings later, but let's start with Mr. Sharif, calmly cool as the Britannic's captain. He's given little to do other than try and stay calm, but because it is Omar Sharif it is at least watchable in its ho-hum ways. Anthony Hopkins plays Superintendent McCleod, a police officer leading the investigation to find the bomber back in England, also working with some extra motivation, his wife (Caroline Mortimer) and kids are on board. Ian Holm is Porter, the Britannic's company owner trying to fix the situation as best as possible. Shirley Knight plays a single woman who hooks up with Sharif's captain, trying to figure the man out. Roy Kinnear and Jack Watson play two members of the crew while Clifton James has a good part as an American politician with a unique outlook on the situation.
With a story that focuses on the horrific situation more than the personal aspect of the characters, something has got to keep you interested at that individual, person-to-person level. For me, that part came through with Harris and Hemmings as the leaders of the bomb squad. An early introduction shows them disarming a bomb in a London museum only to be called away to another rescue mission. We learn little about them other than Harris' Fallon has yet to meet a bomb he can't defuse, but because of the horrifying aspects of their job, it becomes personal. They live on a day-to-day basis, surviving one day at a time because honestly, they have no idea when their end will come. Harris is a scene stealer and the best thing going for Juggernaut, confident, cocky and ready with a joke because that's the only way he knows how to cope. His brotherly relationship with Hemmings is spot-on, a friendship that could only be a product of years of working together in this death-defying situation.
As mentioned before, what sets Juggernaut apart from so many other still entertaining movies is the bomb aspect. Much of the second half of the movie is spent with Harris, Hemmings and their team sitting in front of these seven bombs placed in oil drums that will explode if moved even a little. Harris' Fallon goes first, experimenting to see what will work, his team following suit. If something goes wrong (i.e. the bomb explodes), the team picks up where he left off. Tension doesn't begin to describe these scenes. The camera is right there on the ground with them in the dark passageways of this immense ocean liner. That documentary feel gives you the sensation of being there with them. The clock keeps ticking down, and what do you think happens? It's a cliche, but a good one. A blue wire and a red wire. Which one do you cut?
Is it possible for a disaster movie to be low-key and still be effective? Juggernaut proves that it can. Not remembered with some of the classic disaster flicks, but it is a good one nonetheless. Good cast, unique twist on a familiar formula, and tension and adrenaline to spare. Well worth checking out.
Juggernaut <---trailer (1974): ***/****