Wednesday, June 17, 2015

River Of Death

Cannon released this Alistair MacLean adaptation that’s somewhat of a change of pace for action star Michael Dudikoff (AMERICAN NINJA) in that it’s a period piece that contains no martial arts. It seems tailor-made for Cannon stalwart Chuck Norris, but reports say Robert Ginty and Christopher Walken were considered for the leading role. Dudikoff had just been in a pretty good Vietnam War flick for the studio called PLATOON LEADER, so it was natural he would get the call for this.

A prologue set during the final days of World War II finds sadistic mad scientist Manteuffel (U.N.C.L.E. man Robert Vaughn) and Nazi officer Spaatz (Donald Pleasence) planning to escape to South America to continue the doctor’s experiments to perfect a deadly virus with which to conquer the world. During a firefight, Manteuffel double-crosses his friend, shooting him and leaving him for dead. Twenty years later, John Hamilton (Dudikoff) leads a physician and his daughter into the Amazon jungle to discover the origin of a fatal disease that is decimating the Indian tribes. In an attack, the doctor is killed and the daughter captured; only Hamilton manages to escape to civilization.

Despite his cynical exterior and world-weary attitude, Hamilton is determined to rescue the girl, even though everyone, including his friend Hiller (L.Q. Jones) and the local police chief, Diaz (Herbert Lom), tries to convince him she is dead. An incognito Spaatz joins Hamilton’s party, as do his sexy young lover Maria (Cynthia Erland), an interpreter, a chopper pilot, a pair of rebels, Hiller, and a couple of others. Their destination is a legendary lost city of the Incas, but, to reach there safely, they must contend with cannibals, pirates, sneak attacks, plagues, and a few more double-crosses.

There’s much to like about RIVER OF DEATH, even though it isn’t as good as it should be. MacLean’s excellent premise is treated decently (though not completely faithfully) by adapters Andrew Deutsch (PLATOON LEADER) and Edward Simpson, and director Steve Carver (LONE WOLF MCQUADE) shows a steady hand directing his cast of crafty veterans through their obligatory action scenes.

The decision to have Dudikoff provide dollops of existential narration, a la Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW, doesn’t really work, and the action sequences, though plentiful, could have used more bite, particularly the climax, which feels like a letdown after we’ve been slogging through a treacherous jungle for 100 minutes. I imagine it was felt that Dudikoff’s martial arts talents would feel anachronistic in the 1960s setting, but hiring Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence to play Nazis is hardly the right move for an adventure film with ambitions of being “realistic.” The performances are fine, once you accept that most of the supporting actors are miscast, which provides this pulpy ride with an added level of fun, to be truthful.

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