Reviewed By Isobel Sharp
Posted 01/22/02 01:13:09

"You'll never look at ham the same way again."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Towards the beginning of this movie, there's a scene that's actually quite fun. Two men, from very different backgrounds, come together for a moment over music (the well-known Dueling Banjos theme). Without a word, the two seem to merge into one creature with one musical voice; it's a joyful, happy scene. And it's the only one in the film, so enjoy it while you have it.

It's a lovely summer weekend in Georgia, and four friends decide to go on a rafting trip down a soon-to-be-destroyed river deep in the back country. The group is led by Lewis (Burt Reynolds), a man with what one might consider an overly-romantic view of the wild. To him, getting by in modern society is a weak excuse for the real thing - survival, man left to his own resources, stripped of all the petty nonsense like job, wife, happy family; these things are what life is really about. To him, this river is the last unspoiled place a man can to go get away from civilization, and as the river is about to be dammed up by the power company and essentially drowned by itself, this is the last chance these men will have to really be the way men should be.

The other men are less gripped by the power of nature than Lewis, but all seem to appreciate the way he approaches life: with a sort of reckless disregard of the 'easy way', and a bravado which, to an extent, enchants them. Ed (Jon Voight), though he says he likes his normal, comfortable life, can't quite explain why he goes on trips like this with Lewis. Clearly, he feels a bit of what Lewis is reaching for, even if he can't explain or admit it to himself. And all three, after a day on the water, seem to tune into Lewis' grand story of nature, to one degree or another.

On the second day, however, the men are faced with what the core of Lewis' story really means - that survival often comes to the one who can be the most brutish, and relying on your own resources can sometimes mean that you will fail, and fail horribly. Ed and Bobby (Ned Beatty), stopping for a break, get overpowered by two locals with very bad intentions, especially for the porkly Bobby. Ed and Bobby, obvious outsiders, are easily dominated by the gap-toothed, uneducated, yet powerful hillbillies (ironic, given the sidelong glances and laughs that similar locals had provoked in these men before they set out on their trip).

Fortunately, before Ed can share Bobby's fate, Lewis comes on the scene, armed with a bow, and kills one of the men while the other escapes. This sets off a heated discussion of what to do now, in which Lewis comes into his element. There's a glow in his eye as he argues that they've already administered a rough sort of justice, and don't need to involve the police - you can see that this is Lewis' philosophy in its purest form, and that he may well have been waiting all his life for this day. He's been confronted with a problem, and he's solved it with his own hands - and if only the others will go along with him, all will be well.

They do go along, but all is not well. One of the men, Drew (Ronny Cox), pitches out of the canoe and disappears into the water; the now undermanned canoe blocks the way for the other boat and suddenly everyone's in the rapids. By the time they fetch up against some rocks, Drew is gone and Lewis' leg is badly broken. Convinced that Drew has been shot by the surviving hillbilly, the three men realize that they are on unfamiliar ground, weak, and very possibly hunted. It's Lewis' survival story, taken out of the realm of talk and put into action - unless these men do something drastic, they will not make it back home alive. And as Lewis is out of commission, it falls to Ed to defend his friends and lead them to safety - a job he only takes because, simply put, he has no choice.

This film has a great story - both beautiful and brutal, with convincing characters. We can see how Lewis would be a compelling leader to men who typically face nothing more risky than a paper cut at the office, and can sympathize with Ed, a pretty normal guy thrust into a very abnormal, yet essential, situation. Both Reynolds and Voight do excellent jobs with their demanding parts; Beatty makes a very good sad-sack Bobby, and Drew, the only joyful one in the party, shines even when he's agonized. The only weak spot in the film is its mixed message. Though Lewis is a hero to the men, Ed is supposed to be our hero, and the fact that his crossing over into this role may not have really been necessary undermines his transformation.

To a certain extent, its pop-cultural status actually takes away from the impact of the film - though the brutality is indeed brutal, knowing what's coming ruins the effect to some degree. Still, this film is a classic tense thriller, with the added bonus of having an actual message. Sometimes, in some situations, you just have to do whatever's necessary to survive, whether you like it or not. Also, canoeing without a cell phone is probably a very, very bad idea.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.