Avalanche Express (1979) – A Review
A high ranking Soviet official is defecting to the U.S. Uncle Sam is eager to welcome him with open arms and obtaining all the secrets he has. The Soviets do not want him to fall into their enemies hands and set out to kill him. A CIA agent (Lee Marvin) decides this could be a primo opportunity to use him as bait to lure out hidden Russian agents and dispose of them.
They board ‘The Avalanche Express’. A long train ride across Europe should give the Soviets ample enough time for them to plan hits on Shaw during the long journey. While we get the expected gunfights, the Soviets even go so far as causing an avalanche to silence their target!
Toss in Linda Evans, Mike Connors, Maximilian Schnell and Joe Namath wielding a machine gun going along on this ride. This all sounds like it can be an old school fun-filled Saturday night action flick!
Getting to see two legendary tough guys together in one film – sounds great! The title alone – Avalanche Express – sounds like it will be packed with a lot of fun and thrills and conjures images of some nail biting icy action. Then looking at the poster – how can this NOT be an exciting jam-packed flick? I mean, look at that image! How can a movie like this disappoint?
Well, sadly it really does. Based on the popular novel by Colin Forbes, this Cold War thriller is quite a dull, disappointing haul. There’s not much to take away from this low-grade actioner. It felt like it played more as a higher end Cannon Films action production.
What should have been a quick, uncomplicated setup – Shaw is defecting, has to be protected on a snowy train transport, cue the action – quickly turns into a slog.
There are bits of action, and some are actually pretty satisfying. There are the standard shoot-outs and some pretty well done miniatures and avalanche effects with mountains of snow about to rain down on the train. In the end however, it’s not enough payoff to sit through it all to get to those few moments.
All the actors act bored and don’t seem to be exerting themselves too heavily getting into the spirt of this high-stakes game they’re thrust in. Which is a real shame, because one of the hooks for me to watch Avalanche Express was to watch these these actors play together.
The pace constantly slows down for quiet scenes of dialogue that don’t play well and just punctures the momentum. At times the suspense and stakes completely dissipates. A life-threatening journey on a train that is endangered by avalanches, enemy helicopters, gunmen popping out from the woods. It all sounds so much better than how it plays out.
In fact, there is no sense of a unit among this CIA team. Marvin, Evans, Connors, Namath, there’s no dynamics between them. It plays as if the actors just walked onto the set that day to film their scenes, gave the basics and were done. It’s very rudimentary.
The reason we learn Marvin and Evans are an item is because we see them kiss, not from any chemistry between them. When they leave The Express and suddenly have a shoot-out on a bridge and abruptly take the battle out to sea to sink Schnell’s boat I was completely exhausted and was just waiting for the final big explosion so it would end.
Namath is a funny addition to the cast. I guess at the time he was trying to do get in on some acting gigs, like O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown were doing at the time. I somehow envision they just handed ‘Broadway Joe’ a gun and told him to say his lines. It was very weird to see him in this after seeing him practically everyday doing commercials for Medicare.
I knew within the first three minutes I was going to have trouble getting past the dubbing of Shaw’s voice. His voice is completely dubbed for the entire film (I think there are one or two lines that are actually from his voice) and it’s so disconcerting any time he spoke I was shaking my head rather than listening to what he was saying.
Shaw’s distinguishable voice missing, was another element that made the film play as very run-of-the-mill. There was nothing special about it. You have Shaw, that terrific voice of his, eliminate it and as a result he’s left giving an extremely forgettable performance. His presence is barely felt.
There could be valid reasons for this. Avalanche Express was Shaw’s final film, he died towards the end of production. Director Mark Robson also died before it was completed. Gene Corman (brother of Roger) was hired to complete it. Shaw’s dialogue was re-recorded and to maintain continuity his voice was dubbed in the entire film.
I’m not sure how many or if there were meant to be more scenes filmed with Shaw. I did notice that he is offscreen for a bit of a stretch and thought that was odd. Perhaps that was a situation they had to deal with to work around. The deaths of Shaw and Robson might be the big reasons as to why the film plays in such a choppy, unsatisfying fashion.
It was said Marvin and Shaw got along really well during filming. Marvin was already working on The Big Red One when he learned Shaw died, and out of respect for him production was shut down on the set that day.
In the end, Avalanche Express is not a worthy end to Shaw’s career and not one of Marvin’s better films. It’s a forgettable thriller that only fans of the men might want to check out, but just remember to keep your expectations on the very low end.
If the premise sounds intriguing and you’re hoping for something better, you might want to check out 1976’s The Cassandra Crossing. Similar premise with another a great cast.
An unusual trailer that only uses stills from the film
The avalanche sequence