'Chasing Niagara': Film Review

Red Bull Media House
A vicarious experience of feats few would be reckless enough to attempt.

A man plots for years to kayak over the falls.

An extreme-sports doc that weaves a tiny bit of storytelling ambition into its "strap on the helmet-cams and go!" approach, Rush Sturges' Chasing Niagara begins by confronting a sport's very real dangers and proceeds uncertainly from there. If its hero feels confident he can ride a kayak over honeymooners' favorite waterfall, the movie is not so sure. Though commercial prospects are limited for this tightly focused story, vicarious thrillseekers should be happy for a chance to catch it on big screens as it tours one-off bookings around the nation.

The doc opens with exciting POV footage that soon turns macabre — when the kayaker wearing the camera is struck unconscious after a bad spill, then dangles lifeless in the water until his buddies can find his body and attempt to revive him.

"What would we change," narrator Rafa Ortiz asks, as the footage winds backward to the start of the day's expedition. This was one of many test runs as Ortiz, a Mexican who learned to paddle in Veracruz, seeks out massive falls to prepare for his dream: Surviving the drop that killed the last man who tried taking a kayak over Niagara, in 1990.

Director Sturges, a star kayaker himself, is part of the team Ortiz assembles for years of practice runs, from Mexico's Rio Santo Domingo to the Pacific Northwest. Predictably beautiful helicopter shots are paired with invigorating action footage, with much time out for technical discussions about finding routes down long series of falls that won't shoot the kayakers straight into deadly rocks.

The heist-like planning sequence leading up to the actual Niagara run — after all, it's not just illegal to kayak there, but the ride would be an undocumented border crossing — doesn't approach the involvement level of something like Man on Wire, but it does an adequate job of showing the pressure on the daredevils. How does Ortiz fare on the ride? Best not to Google the result before watching.

Production company: Red Bull Media House
Director-producer: Rush Sturges
Screenwriter: Mark Anders
Executive producers: Guido Kruetschnigg, Philipp Manderla
Directors of photography: Matt Baker, Jared Meehan
Editor: Troy Beauchamp, Rush Sturges
Composer: Greg Ellis

Not rated, 76 minutes

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