"Avalanche Express" is scarcely the sort of farewell vehicle one would have wished on director Mark Robson, who died of a heart attack in June 1978, and costar Robert Shaw, who died of a heart attack two months later.
But presumably neither man actually finished his chores. A closing title card expresses "appreciation" to director Monte Hellman and producer Gene Corman for "post-production services," a likely euphemism for completing the shooting and editing of the film.
Shaw is cast as a defecting KGB official whom the Soviets want back. American agents Lee Marvin, Linda Evans, Mike Connors and Joe Namath endeavor to protect him in the course of a nonsensical perilous train trip from Milan to Amsterdam. Shaw was either post-dubbed by another actor or affected a Russian accent that obliterated his own distinctive voice. The soundtrack has that peculiarly lifeless, disembodied quality characteristic of perfunctory post-recording.
The scenario, attributed to Abraham Polonsky, still best known as the screenwriter of "Body and Soul," offends common sense in the interests of gratuitous mayhem.
This mind-bogging potboiler requires Shaw to become live bait in Marvin's graniose scheme to eliminate the entire Soviet European espionage network en route to Amsterdam.
But unless you're feeling awfully hard up for an espionage thriller, it's difficult to contemplate the spectacle of Marvin & Co. fighting off repeated terroist ambushes without wondering why Shaw hasn't been flown out of harm's way and what the poor unsuspecting passengers must be thinking. Yet when the train stops off in Basel -- after being nearly hijacked and badly shot up -- the passengers exit without the slightest evidence of excitement or inconvenience.
The title derives from a pathetically visualized close call in which terrorists start an avalanche that buries a Swiss village but just misses the bullet-riddled express as it ducks into a tunnel on what is obviously a model train set. After both "Meteor" and "Avalanche Express" it may be necessary to eliminate avalanches as potentially photogenic disasters. Neither movie succeeds in making the threat of a snowy demise at all impressive.
Obliged to characterize the ineffable characters in the expository lulls between shootouts, Polonsky (or someone) gets off an occasional verbal gem In a delightful vaudeville exchange, Connors tries to flatter Shaw by remarking, "You are the third most powerful man in the Soviet Union," only to be rebuked: "I am the first most powerful man in the Soviet Union!"
Better yet is agent Evans' confession to boss Marvin upon rekindling an old romance: "That's the first time you kissed me where half of it didn't belong to Uncle Sam." That line could become a zany lewd classic.