An adventurer (Hamilton) decides to go in search of the lost city in the Amazon jungle. A motley crew of other people with reasons of their own decide to join him for the wealth of the lost city. But to their horror they find out that they have bit off more than they can chew. What with a nazi doctor still doing his experiments on people in the same place.
"Alight, but I'm warning you Eddie, you decide to take off for greener pastures, I'll find you and when I do I'll blow a hole in you from your butt to your brains. And that you can bet on."
Another day, another Cannon Pictures late 80s action film arrives on Blu-ray. I don't know what it is about seeing those interlocking lines that form the Cannon logo that warms the cockles of my heart, but every time as soon as that image comes up I just start to smile. Whether it's a good or a bad film, I know I'm in for something fun. Based on the Alistar MacLean's novel - 'River of Death' features Michael 'American Ninja' Dudikoff heading up the Amazon River to save a lady and stop some Nazi's who have been hiding out in the jungles since the end of WWII. If that doesn't get you excited, I don't know what else will!
In the dying days of World War II, captured soldiers and innocent civilians are being subjected to lethal experiments at the hands of the insane Dr. Wolfgang Manteuffel (Robert Vaughn). His close friend Heinrich Spaatz (Donald Pleasence) relays Hitler's final orders to the good Doctor that they are to flee to a remote outpost deep in the Brazilian rainforest and continue the experiments to create a virus that only attacks and kills people undesirable to the ideals of the Third Reich. When Manteuffel betrays Spaatz by shooting the man in the leg and taking the last airplane off the base, Spaatz swears vengeance - no matter how long it takes.
Flashford to 1965. Local guide and adventurer John Hamilton (Michael Dudikoff) is leading Doctor Blakesley (Victor Melleney) and his young daughter Anna (Sarah Maur Thorp) through Rio Da Morte deep within the Amazon Jungle. The Doctor and his daughter are attempting to trace the origins of a mysterious disease that seemingly only infects the native tribes along the river. The disease is terrible covering people's bodies with grotesque blood-filled lesions and kills extremely quickly. In order to find the source, the trio must continue to travel upriver, far past anywhere Hamilton has been.
The expedition is smooth going until Hamilton and his company are set upon by a mysterious warrior tribe covered in white paint. As they attempt to flee, Doctor Blakesley is shot in the back. Looking back, Hamilton sees a German soldier with a smoking rifle in his hands. The warriors capture Anna and force Hamilton to run for his life. Haunted by the thought of leaving an innocent girl to die, Hamilton pulls all of the favors owed to him to setup a rescue mission enlisting the aide of his sometimes friend and sometimes enemy Eddie (L.Q. Jones). Beyond being a rescue mission, Hamilton's quest picks up the attention of a shady older German business man with a bad limp in one leg and is forced to use a cane to walk. He's not exactly the ideal companion to have on treacherous ground, but the man has money and is willing to pay large sums of cash if he's taken along for the journey. Hamilton must keep his wits about him as from the moment the expedition begins, things go wrong. He's going to have to endure numerous betrayals, dodge an interfering police commander (Herbert Lom), and face an entire army of former Nazi soldiers if he's going to survive the famed River of Death.
Not having read the Alistar MacLean novel, I can only assume that it reads like 'Apocalypse Now' with Nazis. From the first moment Michael Dudikoff slips into his overly dramatic voice over narration I had a total "oh brother," moment as I rolled my eyes and sunk deeper into my couch. Forget the over acting, forget the AIDS metaphor, forget the culturally insensitive depictions of native peoples - it's the narration that just makes 'River of Death' a honey-glazed ham of a movie. It's so deadly serious when everything else on the screen looks so cheap and goofy in that Cannon Films sort of way one can't help but chuckle. I've got to give credit to Dudikoff for doing his best Captain Williard voice over impression - I can't imagine what this movie would be without it.
Without this cast 'River of Death' would probably have been a complete mess. Dudikoff has long been a reliable actor in semi-bad action movies so I knew he would be dependable. Veterans like Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence are the ones who really sell this movie. They had to have known this was a stinker but they give it their all anyway - even during their climatic battle of words in Vaughn's evil underground layer. Whether the hilarity is intentional or not is besides the point - 'River of Death' is just one o those movies that could never have been good so the camp factor is through the roof as the production tries to play it straight. I have to give kudos to Director Steve Carver for at least trying to add a little subtext with the incurable AIDS-like virus but the film also frequently overplays its hand showing numerous production weaknesses and massive plot holes. How do Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence look 20 years older? Longer hair. How are all of the German soldiers fully armed and equipped with 1980s technology in the 1960s? Who knows. Why does Dudikoff wear an 80s deconstructed Chess King jacket in the movie? He probably wore it to set. Moments like those are what make Cannon films such an enjoyable experience. They're usually not very good, but they're so much fun to watch and dissect with a group of friends that it almost becomes impossible to hate them.
As with so many other Cannon releases like 'Firewalker' or 'Invaders From Mars' or the old 1990 'Captain America' movie, it's best to not have high expectations if you're going to come out of the film with any sense of enjoyment. Put your feet back, marvel at how the film got funded so well in the first place, and enjoy the cheese-wiz splayed out on screen. 'River of Death' isn't a high-brow make you think kind of movie. Many times it tries to be, but fails completely - and that's why it's entertaining. If you're a fan of cornball cinema - 'River of Death' is a real treat.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'River of Death' makes its Blu-ray debut thanks to Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics line. Printed on a BD25 disc and housed in a standard case, the disc opens directly to the main menu.
Once again, I have to tip my hat to Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics line of releases - they seem to be doing one hell of a great job getting quality masters for their movies. 'River of Death' makes a beautiful leap to Blu-ray with this 1.85:1 1080p HD presentation. The movie may not be the best, but darn it if it doesn't have a pretty impressive picture! Colors are bright and pop beautifully off the screen - considering the jungle setting this can be delightful. Film grain is intact - it may be a bit more present than some would like as it can appear a bit insect-riddled, but the plus side is detail is pretty spectacular - especially closeups of the disease can look wonderfully nauseating. Black levels are pretty solid for the most part with only minimal crush that I could detect. There is some slight banding here and there - but nothing too distracting. All around I was very impressed by this catalogue release.
'River of Death' finds an impressive amount of life with this DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Filled with amazingly bombastic 1980s sound effects, this track gave my sound system quite the work out. When you have rifles that sound like howitzer cannons you can feel the power behind the mix. Thankfully levels are spot on and things are never too loud or too soft, so you don't have to have your thumb on the volume button. Dialogue comes through crystal clear - which is great because you really want to appreciate the faux German accents, that's half the fun of the film! Imaging is also pretty solid for a stereo track, there is a lot of movement between the center channels to give a great sense of atmosphere.
Audio Commentary: Director Steve Carver and Michael Dudikoff talk at length about the production, working with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and how those guys magically would come up with extra funds for a scene, shooting the film in actual jungles and what it was like working with actors Donald Pleasence and Robert Vaughn. A great listen if you're a Cannon films fan.
Trailer: (HD 2:04) Man do I love a good late 80s trailer - especially when it's got Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) doing the narration!
Is 'River of Death' a good movie? In short - no, not really. If you're going to judge it on cinematic merits of performances and story telling, it's hardly a winning example - but that doesn't keep it from being 107 minutes of fun! If you're expecting high art, you've come to the wrong movie. If you want fun with a little over the top adventure and excitement - it doesn't get much better. Add in the outstanding A/V quality of the disc with an informative commentary tack and you have a Blu-ray that isn't too hard to say is at the very least worth a look.