Part twisty spy thriller, part ludicrous disaster film, Avalanche Express (1979) is a fun, disposable lark that feels like a movie from three different decades: a smidge of the Technicolor 1960s, a pinch of the shaggy, edgy 1970s, and a portion of bonkers 1980s spectacle. Plus, it’s got “Joe Namath as Leroy.” How could I resist?
The adventure begins when a high-ranking, traitorous KGB officer named Marenkov (Robert Shaw) reaches out to the west for exfiltration: after years of providing the U.S. with valuable intelligence, his luck has run out and it’s time to defect. A crack team of agents lead by Colonel Harry Wargrave (Lee Marvin) swoops into Europe to spirit him out of Switzerland, but their successful lift operation is just the beginning. Marenkov has a scheme in mind to simultaneously expose a network of Soviet deep-cover agents in western Europe and lure a rival KGB spymaster named Bunin (Maximillian Schell) to his doom, thereby hobbling a major Soviet plot to unleash biological warfare against the west. The plan: reveal to the enemy his “secret” escape route on the Atlantic Express, a train that will carry him from the Alps to Holland, in order to bait Bunin and his assets into an attack.
Extensive location shooting makes the opening scenes of Avalanche Express an attractive, broad-canvas international thriller with a focus on slick, dialogue-free action and visual storytelling. At first it looks like classic spy-fi “competence porn,” with Marvin and Shaw heading up a team of supremely confident agents that includes Mike Connors (perfectly cast as a high-level espiocrat) and Linda Evans (merely along for the ride, alas, as an age-inappropriate love interest). But as the film advances, their impossible mission soon reveals itself as little more than an excuse to deploy extensive model work in a lengthy avalanche setpiece—a sequence that springs from the same school of disaster blockbuster film that brought us The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. The slick, cerebral spy thriller it might have been is therefore abandoned, replaced by a brainless, if occasionally diverting and impressive, action spectacle. As such, it falls into that weird category of films that age both poorly and well at the same time—silly and quaint from one angle, but classy and charming from another, depending on your tolerance for the film-making proclivities of the era. I got a kick out of it, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend it.