Covering virtually the same wild narrative real estate as “Never Cry Wolf,” widescreen survival adventure “The Snow Walker” is lovely to look but will evoke a sense of deja vu from those who remember helmer Carroll Ballard’s film, which preemed 20 years ago. Also adapted from the work of Canadian nature writer Farley Mowat and directed by the star of Ballard’s movie, new pic is hampered from becoming a solid family favorite only by a puzzling reliance on R-rated language, lustily delivered by star Barry Pepper as a self-absorbed bush pilot whose bacon is saved by an indigenous lass.
It’s 1953, and hotshot stick jockey Charlie Halliday (Pepper) flies for Golden North Air Charters out of Yellowknife, in the southwestern region of the Northwest Territories. When he’s not mouthing off to boss Walter Sheperd (James Cromwell) or drinking with a gang of co-workers that include the hostile Pierce (Jon Gries), he’s in the sack with g.f. Estelle (Kiersten Warren).
While on a routine delivery to the Queen Maude Gulf at the far north of the territory, a reluctant Charlie is persuaded by payment of ivory walrus tusks to transport tubercular Inuit beauty Kanaalaq (Annabella Piugattuk) to a hospital for immediate treatment. When the yellow Norseman plane nosedives into a shallow lake well off course, the pair must learn to communicate with one another in order to survive their prejudices and the elements.
The pilot’s slow acceptance of his predicament is played against frantic efforts to locate him by Sheperd and his staff. As he’s finally declared dead, Charlie is in fact valiantly dragging Kanaalaq through a fierce blizzard, desperate to save the woman who has, in fact, saved him.
“Never Cry Wolf” star Charles Martin Smith (who also played Toad in “American Graffiti”) was so taken with the great white north and the Inuit people that he subsequently bonded with Canadian national treasure Mowat, who in turn gave the actor free reign in choosing a story to direct. While Smith’s love and respect for the land comes through clearly in every frame, generic nature of story — civilization bad, wilderness good — renders each dramatic chapter, no matter how vivid, fairly predictable.
Though his swearing distracts from pic’s measured vibe, Pepper turns the whiny Charlie into a sympathetic figure by sheer force of personality. Whether engulfed by mosquitoes or chasing down a herd of caribou with a homemade spear (one of many sequences that summon echoes of “Never Cry Wolf”), Pepper renders Charlie’s comic anger with aplomb.
As the eternally patient, almost mystical Kanaalaq, diminutive newcomer Piugattuk (19 when the film was shot) excels as the serene heart of the proceedings, breathing fresh life into the Inuit message that living off the land can be infinitely more satisfying for the body and the soul than a dependence on weapons and devices. Cromwell’s in compassionate authority mode as the frustrated Sheperd.
Tech package is formidable and impressive, with crisp widescreen lensing of Manitoba and new arctic territory Nunavut locations a major plus under what must have been arduous conditions. Smith and co-producer William D. Vince began planning pic as they toiled to make 1997 Disney comedy “Air Bud.”