Well, for starters, the movie turns out to be Michael Dudikoff in a Indiana Jones-inspired adventure battling Nazis and in search of a lost city in the Amazon! Yeah, the second time you read it, reality starts to sink in. Just wait though if you make the mistake of actually watching it!
It all begins promisingly enough in the waning days of World War II where a Nazi doctor (Robert Vaughn back when he was still paying his dues before hitting the big time with those commercials for law firms) is making his escape with the help of a buddy played by Donald Pleasence (killing time in between Halloween sequel paychecks). The set up seems promising because Vaughn is sporting a silly-looking Hitler hairdo that appears to have been colored with shoe polish, much like Gregory Peck’s Josef Mengele character in the enormously trashy, but enormously more ambitious and entertaining The Boys From Brazil.
Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end because while you might be able to argue that the Dude (Platoon Leader) is the Laurence Olivier of mid-1980s Cannon low budget action movies not starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris to Vaughn’s Gregory Peck, River of Death‘s plot stubbornly refuses to take advantage of the evil Nazi doctor in hiding angle beyond the occasional mention of a plague affecting the natives and a scene or two near the end of the movie where some folks sport a few lesions and mope around about being infected.
But if the Nazi doctor’s schemes lack the crazy imagination of Mengele’s cloning plot in The Boys From Brazil, that just means that the Dude is having all sorts of cliffhanging, hair raising, edge of your seat adventure on his way to find the lost city, right? Well, in between uninspired bouts of native attacks, a squabble with some river pirates and dealing with a corrupt government official, the Dude does sweat an awful lot and sport a very adventurous-looking stubble.
You can’t really blame the jungle for not bringing its “A” game since the group of people the Dude is leading to the lost city amounts to little more than a conglomeration of barely defined characters with obvious secrets. Since the expedition takes place 20 years following the prologue, is there anyone who didn’t realize the blonde woman traveling with Pleasence was really the little girl who saw Vaughn’s character shoot her dad in the opening scenes? The unfortunate Brigitte Nielsen haircut alone should have given away her trauma-filled past!
And what exactly was the purpose of the two Nazi hunters that joined up with the Dude? I had to replay parts of the movie to even figure out why they seemed to simply disappear during the last third of the film. (The last time we see them, they are getting clubbed by natives while the Dude and some others make their escape.)
But who needs world-changing plans to begin the Fourth Reich, over-the-top stunts and action sequences, and a compelling cast of characters when you’ve got a lost city to gallivant around in? Unfathomable treasure, unspeakable rites in service to ancient gods, and hidden passageways and tombs are the order of the day and make the uncomfortably humid journey more than worth it!
Of course I’m talking about some other lost city in some other movie. This has Nazi goons, natives, and a laughable lab which is stocked worse than a high school chemistry class. The Dude did have to accidentally slide down an incline to get to it, so that counts for a little adventure. At least if you’re at second grade recess.
A movie that fails like one of the evil doctor’s experiments we’re never really told about can only end with the Dude standing around doing nothing, watching all the bad guys kill each other, and saving no one.
Throw in some mumbo jumbo about a prophecy and some assistance from a helpful witch doctor we don’t even know and you welcome the Dude’s bizarre and sleepy-sounding voice-over which concludes things: “Most of the dreams I’ve ever had fade away, but this one… I’ll never forget. The only thing real… is the jungle. I wake up… and I know… it’s gonna be there.” Dude, you are truly the Henry David Thoreau of failed Amazon adventure films!
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