River of Death (1989)

Fifteen movies have been based on Alistair MacLean novels as of this writing, and 1989's River of Death was the next-to-last (being followed only by 1995's made-for-TV version of The Way to Dusty Death). Sadly, the string of movies didn't wane because River of Death was such a tough act to follow; more likely, it was because MacLean's passing in 1987 had made his name less of an attraction.

As mentioned in my review, the book River of Death was actually better than many of his other late-career writings. It seemed like a natural candidate to be filmed. Very little about this movie, though, can be described as "natural."

While the opening World War II scenes foreshadow later developments (as in the book), the most powerful Nazi is presented as a mad scientist, rather than merely a rogue officer as depicted by MacLean. The movie then drops us directly into a dense and treacherous South American jungle, where fearless guide John Hamilton is helping an aging doctor and his beautiful-and-amorous daughter trace the source of a strange disease afflicting indigenous people. A violent confrontation with a darkly painted warlike tribe and its gun-wielding white-skinned ally sends Hamilton running for his life — none of which happened in the book. The nearest town's police chief, who presses Hamilton for details on that encounter, has a very different allegiance than the one MacLean created for him.

Setting out to return to this tribe's "lost city," Hamilton is accompanied by a motley crew: a soldier of fortune, a pair of Nazi hunters, a supposed expert on indigenous tribes, and a wealthy businessman, who also brings a couple of his associates and his gorgeous young girlfriend. After harrowing adventures (which bear only a hazy resemblance to anything MacLean described), they find the lost city, where many terrible secrets are revealed and vengeances are sought. (The denouement bears little resemblance to the book's, and a major plot twist involving Hamilton is omitted due to the earlier script changes.)

Hamilton is portrayed by Michael Dudikoff, probably best known as the star of the American Ninja movies. His performance here is uninspiring; the few emotions he shows seem forced, and despite frequent deadly threats and attacks, he never seems especially worried about his fate. (Perhaps he had read ahead in the script.) A few other semi-name actors are similarly unexciting. Only Donald Pleasence, as the rich man on a desperate quest, is reliably believable.

A few scenes do stand out as watchable, mostly the ones involving explosions (kudos to the special-effects coordinator). There's also one strangely long and hypnotic scene in which a woman who resembles a Cabaret reject sings a decadent come-hither song to a handful of ex-Nazis in a dark nightclub.

For the most part, though, the writers and directors apparently "mailed it in" as much as the actors did. From the unlimited ammunition that everyone's gun seems to contain, to the Nazi-hunters' annoying habit of filling Hamilton in with impossibly detailed information every now and then, to the characters' frequently letting their attention wander when an enemy and/or a loose gun is next to them, to the deepest-Amazon tribal leader who speaks English as if he'd been raised in the heart of the U.S.A. ... there's a whole lot to dislike about this film. Pity — it had the potential to be better than the book.


(2 out of 10)