Before heading down the Cahulawassee River, Burt Reynolds was probably best known as the half-Indian Quint Asper from an early-’60s stint on Gunsmoke. There had been a few failed TV shows after that, and a handful of films with such memorably unmemorable titles as Shark, Fuzz, and Navajo Joe, but essentially Reynolds’ career was drowning fast. That is, until the Cahulawassee came calling.
Cocky, macho, and handsome as hell, Reynolds gives an electric performance as the alpha-male weekend warrior Lewis Medlock — one of the many reasons why Deliverance holds up 35 years later. There’s also Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, a pair of dueling banjos, and the note-perfect casting of Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, and Ned Beatty — poor Ned Beatty — who’s had to endure ”squeal like a pig” heckling ever since the film’s notorious hillbilly rape scene.
Nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, John Boorman’s adaptation of James Dickey’s bestselling wilderness nightmare follows four pals who try to tame Mother Nature, only to wind up on the business end of her wrath. They’re city men made soft by wealth and progress, trying to recapture something in themselves that they’ve lost. Unfortunately, the new deluxe edition’s extras don’t add much to the film’s impact: There’s a vintage making-of featurette, which has appeared on previous DVD incarnations; a four-part retrospective that includes recent interviews with the film’s principals but lacks the insight one would hope for (Beatty, perhaps understandably, has precious little to say about his infamous scene); and Boorman’s slightly stuffy commentary track, which feels padded with anecdotes he’s told a million times before.
Fortunately, the film still speaks eloquently enough for itself. And, of course, there’s Reynolds’ mesmerizing performance. With his Mephisto-phelean swagger and chewy, good ol’ boy drawl, Reynolds is a chest-beating revelation. If you squint hard enough, you can still see a struggling small-screen actor on the verge of becoming the biggest star of the ’70s. B+