Another Connery, another plot to overthrow the Casablanca Conference…
By 1989, the industry that churned out grindhouse thrillers aplenty was virtually extinct, with the Italian film industry as a whole severely shrunken through the previous decade. Casablanca Express is likely the last of the “macaroni combat” films, and if the genre had to pick a swan song for itself… well, this is better than nothing.
The main action involves a train headed from Algiers to Casablanca, carrying with it a most precious cargo: Winston Churchill, headed to a legendary meeting of the Allied leaders. Several British, American and French military officials (played by screen legends Donald Pleasance, Glenn Ford and Jean Sorrel, respectively) plot the best way to ensure the Prime Minister’s safe travel, and eventually entrust Churchill’s safety to a group of American soldiers and three top secret agents. Of course, it all goes to hell when a Nazi saboteur is found on board, and takes the train and its cargo hostage.
Taking the lead role as the intelligence officer Alan Cooper, Jason Connery does a solid job carrying the picture. He doesn’t have the instant screen-magnetism of his father, but the younger Connery holds his own against established actors like Ford and Pleasance - not to mention he gets to use a rather bitchin’ crossbow. Connery is accompanied by another offspring of a famous screen legend in Francesco Quinn, and although he doesn’t get to do quite as much, he at least gets a heroic fight aboard the roof of a speeding train. Keeping the film from turning into too much of a sausage-fest is Jinny Steffan as the third intelligence agent assigned to the train, and seeing the actress brandish a machine gun is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The overall movie is staged rather well - as it should be, coming from a veteran like Sergio Martino. Martino had been in the exploitation trenches for decades at this point, churning out his due share of poliziotteschis, spaghettis and most especially giallos throughout his career, and so the chases and shootouts and sexy-time all come in on-point and on a budget, to boot. There is an interesting subplot involving the other civillian passengers on the train, each of whom are colorful enough to make an impression even though they barely get five minutes of screen time apiece, but the film’s brisk pace keeps us from focusing on much that doesn’t involve shootings or stabbings of some kind. More time devoted to that particular strand could have made Casablanca Express something of a kissing cousin to The Lady Vanishes, but I fear none of the other passengers could spin off into their own adventures, ala Charters and Caldecott.
It’s a fairly fun movie, but there is one element in which it fails miserably, and while that one failure is not enough to completely derail the movie, it certainly keeps it from being as enjoyable as it could be. After watching several of these Italian exploitation movies, one thing that quickly becomes apparent in each particular film’s success is the musical score accompanying it. Many a mediocre film was transformed into something bold and exciting when it was handed over to maestros like Morricone, Bacalov and Nicolai - three names who produced a stunning array of work that Casablanca Express just can’t measure up to in any way. The music here is dreadful throughout, completely killing each scene with it syth-heavy, repeated and conventially-blah tones that it is laid over. The score feels like something more befitting an educational kid’s show you might come across on an early Sunday morning in the nineties. The fact that the film works at all in spite of the horrid music is a true testament to Martino and his cast.