I wonder if Burt Reynolds was having deja vu.
In 1972's "Deliverance," Reynolds led fellow city dwellers Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Jon Voight on a backwoods whitewater canoe trip that took them to realms of fear they had never known. The foursome's hellish weekend included canoes shredded to splinters in the rapids, sadistic mountain men, life-threatening injuries and a death, and a battle with their own consciences over how much of their story should stay on the river.
Audiences will recognize most of those elements - and even a line or two straight out of the script - in "Without a Paddle," but this time they're wrapped up in "wacky comedy" packaging. Childhood pals Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard and Seth Green find themselves on a backwoods river (in Southern Oregon) where they lose their canoe, escape from sadistic mountain men and run into ... Burt Reynolds.
Actually, the comedy's not as wacky as the previews would have us believe. The three friends are reuniting at the funeral of their fourth buddy, who left them a map to the legendary hideout of skyjacker D.B. Cooper. Although they embark on the adventure in tribute to their friend, each of them is less than happy with his lot in life and is hoping to recapture their carefree boyhood days on the river.
Director Steven Brill and a sizable writing team used a pretty thick crayon when they were outlining each character. Lillard is a successful executive with a loving girlfriend, but he's bored with his job and unwilling to think about marriage. Shepard is a compulsive gambler and ex-con, living from one get-rich-quick scheme to the next. Green, whose short stature and nerdy nature makes him the butt of all the jokes, is a doctor who's got more phobias than he does patients.
Their adventures include Green being carried off by a mother bear, Green being thrown through a barn wall, Green sucking down a beetle through a reed underwater ... you get the idea. While the other two spend much of their screen time howling with laughter at Green's predicaments, they undergo their share of hazards too (a hazy chase through a field of burning marijuana is a keeper) and they do help each other come to grips with the task before them - surviving the mountains - which turns out to be one of those metaphors for life anyway.
As if the parallels to "Deliverance" were looming too large for comfort, the filmmakers made the movie's villains a couple of bumbling redneck militiamen who go fishing with dynamite and pack enough firearms onto their four-wheelers to invade a small country. These guys deserved more scenes - they could have had some of the juiciest laughs in the movie. When a scruffy, mullet-haired pistol wielder starts crooning Boy George songs, that's a cinema moment. "I went through a New Wave phase," he admits to his comrade.
There are some fresh elements to "Without a Paddle," like an encounter with a pair of hairy-legged but beautiful environmentalist tree-sitters. The scenery is gorgeous and looks awfully familiar, even though it was filmed in New Zealand, and director Brill keeps a tight hold on reality when he goes for the laughs. And Seth Green does do a darn good imitation of C-3PO from "Star Wars." But the script, from one end of the river to the other, is just as pat and formulaic as you'd expect, and viewers will get the feeling that despite their life-changing adventure, nothing's really going to change for these guys after all.
"Without a Paddle"
Rated PG-13 for drug content, sexual material, language, crude humor and some violence.
Starring: Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard, Ethan Suplee, Abraham Benrubi, Burt Reynolds
Directed by: Stephen Brill
Length: One hour 35 minutes
Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema in Seaside
Short take: Three childhood buddies take a whitewater canoe trip that turns into a comic nightmare as they escape canoe-crunching rapids, overly affectionate bears and heavily armed rednecks.
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four)
Movie trivia: What famous movie roles has Burt Reynolds turned down?
Answer: Reynolds turned down the parts that went to Jack Nicholson in "Terms of Endearment" and Bruce Willis in "Die Hard."