The characters and the audience take a wild ride in “The River Wild,” a tense , sharply made thriller about a family held hostage during a river rafting vacation. A rare actioner in which a woman gets the lion’s share of the heroics, pic marks a career watershed for Meryl Streep, outstanding as a buff white-water rafter who has it all over the men around her. With few other high-profile action films in the marketplace in the early fall, this should have clear sailing to strong B.O., with equal appeal to men and women, and can even end up as an attraction on the Universal tour.
The number of successful action dramas with women center stage can practically be tallied on one hand, and that’s with the “Alien” epics accounting for three of them. Linda Hamilton flexed some muscle in the “Terminator” sci-fiers, and perhaps “La Femme Nikita” and its Yank remake could be counted, but the list is pathetically short however you draw it up.
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“The River Wild,” then, is refreshing on this level as well as several others , in that it’s reasonably intelligent for a formulaic nuclear-family-in-jeopardy suspenser, well acted and seemingly authentic in its detailing of the characters’ imposing physical challenges.
Looking robust and glowing with healthy color, Streep is first glimpsed sculling at sunset in Boston, where her character, Gail, lives with architect hubby Tom (David Strathairn), two kids and a dog. The night before, the too-busy Tom bails on the rafting trip they’re due to take out West, revealing fissures in the family that will both deepen and close later on.
Leaving her little daughter with her folks, Gail, son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), whose 10th birthday the vacation is celebrating, and Fido are virtually hopping aboard their raft when Tom belatedly joins them. Not exactly the aquatic equal of Strathairn’s memorable Cajun river rat in “Passion Fish,” Tom sits rigidly in the vessel while Gail expertly navigates it downstream.
Gail, who grew up amidst these spectacular mountains, used to be a river guide and knows its every twist and turn, a fact seized upon by a trio of supposed fishermen led by the friendly Wade (Kevin Bacon). When their guide mysteriously disappears, Gail can hardly refuse to help Wade and his creepy-looking buddy, Terry (John C. Reilly), get down the river, just as she can’t ignore the young gent’s cocky self-confidence in the face of her husband’s stiff distractedness.
Film’s first half is given over to building some solid characters and relationships, establishing Gail’s mastery of the river and laying unmistakable hints that “something’s off” about the two guys, which only Tom, among the family, picks up on.
Second half suddenly explodes into violent and open conflict. It turns out that the pack Wade is carrying contains $ 250,000 that he and Terry robbed from a cattle auction. They’ve also already killed two men. With the authorities expecting them to try to slip over the nearby border to Canada, they’ve decided to head the opposite way, past the normal rafting destination and over some almost impossible rapids called the Gauntlet. Beyond there, they figure, no one will look for them. And who better to take them there but Gail, one of the few to have run the Gauntlet before?
First-time screenwriter Denis O’Neill and director Curtis Hanson tighten the screws skillfully after Wade takes charge. Wielding a gun and threatening the family members to varying degrees, Wade still likes to think of himself as a nice guy who might yet have a chance with Gail, whom he admires for her gumption and talent. By contrast, he has no use whatsoever for Tom, who luckily escapes from the raft just in time, giving him a chance to prove his manhood when the lives of his wife and son are at stake.
The cat-and-mouse game continues suspensefully until the climactic encounter with the Gauntlet, where Nature effectively becomes an unknown third force in the battle of wits. Numerous twists and turns adroitly postpone full audience satisfaction and relief until the very last.
Hanson, undertaking by far his biggest production to date, nicely balances the assorted elements of action, good guys vs. bad guys, family drama, sentiment and humor, and all other hands carry their weight impressively. Crisply lensed in widescreen by Robert Elswit mostly in Oregon and Montana, film is exceedingly handsome, and the on-water footage is about as exciting and rough-and-tumble as it could be. Joe Hutshing and David Brenner’s editing is tight, while Jerry Goldsmith’s score is conventionally effective.
Production materials state that Streep did 90% of the rapids work herself, but film makes it look as though she did it all. Spunky, determined, emotional, resilient and powerfully physical, her Gail seems every bit the grown-up girl raised on the river. Role allows Streep to explore new dimensions (and a bit of normalcy) not covered by her diverse previous parts, and could position her for a new phase of public acceptance.
Bacon proves insidiously effective as a boyish baddie, Strathairn is ideal as the reserved but ultimately resourceful husband, and Mazzello has a lot more opportunity to show his range than he did as one of the kids in “Jurassic Park.” Reilly’s white trash sidekick reps the film’s most forceful reminder of its closest precursor, “Deliverance.”
Some incidental bits involving Gail’s deaf father and her family’s ability to sign are neatly and unobtrusively worked into the drama. Only unnecessary baggage is some hocus-pocus involving the old Indian tradition of visionquest.