The Film: 4/5
Adapted from a potboiler jungle adventure novel written by Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone), River of Death is a veritable fruitcake of a B-movie. It crams just about every thing you could possibly ever want from a zany exploitation thrill ride into a single feature film, hits the "Blend" button, and then hires the director of Big Bad Mama and Lone Wolf McQuade to mold it into a viable product that makes sense to potential distributors at the Cannes Film Market.
By the way, it's a Cannon Films production. The top billing given to Michael Dudikoff, the star of the Go-Go Boys' beloved American Ninja franchise, should have been a dead giveaway. MacLean always did love stories of escaped Nazis carrying on the legacy of the Third Reich decades after its fall. It's the stuff of which the lurid trash novels that crowded the metal revolving racks in drugstores and airports were made. River of Death was made at the time Cannon was in free fall thanks to many bad business decisions (#1 being Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), and Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (the Lennon and McCarthy of shameless 80's cinematic schlock) were reduced to making competing lambada movies as a way of communication. As a thriller, River is an utter failure, but as a thrilling, campy throwback to the glory days of Z-grade pulp made to clutter the bottom half of drive-in double bills and take up available air time on low-wattage UHF television stations, it's a gas.
In an uncharted region of the Amazon Jungle, rugged explorer John Hamilton (Dudikoff) is escorting British doctor Blakesley (Victor Melleney) and his daughter Anna (Sarah Maur Thorp) on the search to find a cure for a deadly disease. Their quest ends with the good doctor being shot dead, Anna captured by a hostile tribe, and Hamilton left for dead in the river. He manages to make it back to civilization with the intention of returning to the jungle to rescue Anna and recruits his greedy old friend Eddie (L.Q. Jones) to help secure supplies and ammunition for the mission. Eddie goes Hamilton better by getting him hired on to lead an eccentric billionaire (Donald Pleasance) and his entourage on an expedition to find a lost Incan city. The money is too much for Hamilton to reject, and at the same time he's approached by a team of Nazi hunters who want to tag along on the adventure because they believe that Dr. Wolfgang Manteuffel (Robert Vaughn), a scientist in Hitler's employ who conducted many horrifying human experiments before escaping Germany, is hiding out somewhere in the jungle. Also joining the fun is Serrano (Alain D. Woolf), a shifty, so-called expert on the Amazon's tribes and their cultures who may not be all that he claims to be.
Since this is an adaptation of a pulp novel, you just know that there's going to be some hair-raising escapades and head-slapping twists around every bend in the river. River of Death brings the page-turning fun of MacLean's novel to the screen mostly intact: midget boxing, an attack by river pirates, cannibals who use bloody human skulls as a welcome mat, narration from Dudikoff that sounds like a poor attempt to pass off River as a spiritual sequel to Apocalypse Now, and a burning Nazi flag as the icing on this cake. Plus, what is an adventurous river excursion without enough military-grade artillery to lay siege to Toronto?
River continues the grand Cannon Films tradition of ripping off whatever genre is popular at the box office while taking it to an extreme that can hardly be considered logical. Golan and Globus tried to capitalize on the success of the Indiana Jones franchise with their two Allan Quartermain movies, but audiences cared little for the cheapjack imitations. Since River grossed barely half a million dollars at the American box office, it's safe to assume it had even less impact on moviegoers. It works better as a home viewing experience anyhow, like most of Cannon's output, because the average theater won't allow you to bring in a bag full of greasy burritos and a case of Old Milwaukee. Brooklyn-born director Steve Carver, who always had a flair for creating big-budget excess on a fraction of the average studio feature's production funding, has plenty of gun fights, exploding boats, jungle temples, and crashing helicopters to make River an infinitely more ambitious movie than you might normally expect from Cannon. South African locations stand in just fine for the Amazon, unless you've been to both and are capable of telling one from the other.
Dudikoff is no Harrison Ford, or even Richard Chamberlain, but he's convincing enough as a burned-out rogue traveler who can handle himself in a fight, cares about the people closest to him, and spends the entire movie sweating his ass off. As the billionaire with the surprising hidden agenda that will not shock anyone who watches the opening sequence, Donald Pleasance isn't at his best, but the healthy paycheck he received for his trouble must have motivated him enough to give a shit about his character's motivation. Same goes for Robert Vaughn, in an extended cameo as the diabolical Nazi scientist Manteuffel, though he recites his lines like they were printed on cue cards positioned off-camera. Peckinpah repertory player L.Q. Jones has a lot more fun as Dudikoff's pal, as does a unrecognizable Herbert Lom (Mark of the Devil) as a corrupt police chief with his own plans.
Kino Lorber has blessed River of Death with a gorgeous 1080p high-definition transfer framed in the movie's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The source of the transfer was a restored print prepared by MGM, which currently owns the bulk of the Cannon Films library. Throw out your battered and worn VHS copies, my friends, because the Kino transfer is the best this movie will ever look on home video. The picture is very clean and rich with improved details in the most minor of areas. Now we can behold every bead of sweat on Dudikoff's face. Finally! The color palette boasts warm but vibrant hues and precious little bleed. The jungle scenes explode with beautiful green foliage. Best of all, the night scenes aren't overrun with black crush. Cinematographer Avi Karpick (Cutting Class) did a great job here. The transfer also retains a fine, natural layer of film grain. Since River was mixed and exhibited in Ultra Stereo, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is more than adequate to replicate the original mix with terrific clarity, balanced volume levels, and no signs of distortion. The dialogue comes through both channels audibly and the music score by Sasha Matson (Bloodfist) does its job well without threatening to drown out the rest of the sound mix. No subtitles have been included.
Director Carver teams up with his leading man Dudikoff for a laid-back, informative audio commentary that covers much ground in regards to the movie's development and production. The two participants strike up a conversational tone early on and the anecdotes they share are fun, if hardly surprising. Outside of the commentary, the only extra is the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), which is presented in standard-definition and definitely shows its age.
River of Death is exactly what you would expect from the last days of Cannon Films, and then some. It's a mostly unpretentious, violent jungle romp that works as a mindless distraction and has no small amount of thrills and twists to keep the viewer engaged. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray boasts a fantastic new high-definition transfer and a new commentary that's easily worth a listen. That's enough for this disc to warrant a recommendation.