In April 1945 on Europe's Eastern Front, just as the Second World War was ending, one of the Nazis' concentration camps was about to be liberated by Allied forces, and what they would find there would chill them to the bone, for a mad scientist, Dr Wolfgang Manteuffel (Robert Vaughn), had been experimenting with germ warfare. He had taken the prisoners and subjected them to his manufactured viruses, resulting in many deaths, but now was planning his escape to South America before he could be caught, and his colleague from the SS, Heinrich Spaatz (Donald Pleasence), was supplying that route across the Atlantic. However, after shooting an officer who threatened to expose him - in full view of the man's daughter, who was hiding under the table - the doctor had other ideas.
By 1989 there had not been an Alistair MacLean adaptation in cinemas since Bear Island some ten years before, and the once mighty behemoth of men's men's adventure novels was seeing his once huge popularity dwindling, or he would have had be not died in the mid-eighties. Such was the fickle nature of the public, and though he had penned many books, the thirst for watching them brought to the silver screen had fallen away so a bunch were left unfilmed, and to be honest efforts like River of Death were likely a reason for that. It was one of the final Cannon productions before they went completely out of business, and more often found on home video as it was not exactly selling out picture palaces across the globe.
There were elements which made this unmistakably a Cannon project, such as the explosions set off every five minutes, big ones too, but more obvious than that was the presence of the Dude himself, Michael Dudikoff, Cannon's homegrown action star who they tried to turn into as big a draw as their more established regulars such as Chuck Norris. It didn't really happen that way, and Dudikoff remains mostly familiar to the action movie enthusiast who simply has to track down every example of eighties action there was, with the star's career not surviving especially well once he didn't have his parent company looking after his interests anymore, i.e. once the nineties happened. Here he was delivering what was apparently supposed to be his best Indiana Jones impersonation (with a spot of Martin Sheen for narration).
The difference between Indy and Mike's John Hamilton character most blatantly being their sense of humour, that was, Hamilton didn't have one, which proved fatal for funseekers when the most giggles you could wheedle out of this one were unintentional. It was a surprisingly serious yarn that unravelled in this case, or at least the tone was since the actual plot was rather goofy, detailing a search for a lost city in the Amazon jungle (actually South Africa) which takes an inordinate amount of patience-testing time for the heroes to find. It wasn't only heroes who were on its trail, as Spaatz is around too, seeking vengeance on the doctor after he shot him in the knee on the runway just as their plane was about to take off for South America twenty years ago. In fact, there was an abundance of characters looking for the madman, probably far too many for the plot's convenience.
More cannon fodder, so to speak, but Hamilton gets involved after a different, nice doctor notices some Indians are suffering the same disease Manteuffel inflicted on the war victims and enlists the rugged hero to lead him and his daughter (Sarah Maur Thorp) into the jungle to - well, you get the idea. When this mission fails, Hamilton escapes the Nazis and local recruits but gets caught up in Spaatz's alternative mission, which can only mean one thing: loads of extras painted in a variety of colours, oh, and more explosions. Among the ageing cast was also Herbert Lom as a corrupt, machine gun-toting police chief and L.Q. Jones as Hamilton's dodgy ally, though Vaughn fans should be advised that not only did he make a most unconvincing Nazi scientist, he was only in this for five minutes, a bit at the start and a bit at the end for his second billing in the credits. Sort of a cross between Indy and The Boys from Brazil, in spite of excellent locations this was a real slog as you felt every trudging step through the undergrowth. Music by Sasha Matson.