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‘The River Wild’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1994

That Meryl Streep muscles her way down “The River Wild” is an active response to the ebbing tide of worthy roles for actresses over 45. Portraying a former white-water rafter turned suburban wife, the actress wrestles rapids and paddle-whips psychopaths to save her loved ones after a family vacation goes awry.

She is woman, see her oar.

Curtis Hanson directs this routine action thriller, which like his earlier film “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” turns on an intruder’s attempt to insinuate himself into the family by duping Mom. This time, the evil beguiler is Wade (Kevin Bacon), an armed robber who charms Gail and her son, Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), into letting him and his buddy raft along with the family.

Gail’s neglectful workaholic husband, Tom (David Strathairn), who joins them just as they are about to shove off, is miffed to find that Wade has made significant inroads with his wife and son. Roarke resents his father’s lack of interest and has begun to look up to Wade, while Gail glows under the flirty young man’s regard.

A nebbishy architect who brought his briefcase along, Tom spends the early part of the trip with his nose in his work. Still, he can’t help but notice that Wade and his bumpkin buddy would be right at home in “Deliverance.” Long after the family dog and the audience have pegged the pair as bogymen, Tom persuades Gail to give them the slip.

Alas, they’re not fast enough for Wade, who pulls a gun on Roarke and threatens to use it if Gail refuses to take them through the Gauntlet, a turbulent patch of rapids and falls that she had navigated as a girl. Pleading middle age and the responsibilities of motherhood, Gail attempts to talk the increasingly twitchy Wade into letting them out before the deadly rapids.

What Wade doesn’t know is that the family knows sign language, that the dog is not really dead and that Roarke has a Swiss army knife hidden in his boot. Will this dysfunctional bunch be resourceful enough to outwit Wade before they reach the Gauntlet? If not, will Gail be able to get them through the white water safely? Do we care?

In part, the movie lacks suspense because of its sunny setting. Mainly, though, the problem is that Wade doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. Denis O’Neill’s rudimentary screenplay was adapted from an article he wrote for Fly, Rod & Reel magazine, and O’Neill proves to be a squeamish screenwriter. He doesn’t allow his villain to do anything truly unnerving until the story’s nearly done. And while Wade conveys sexual menace toward Gail, he is prevented from so much as touching her cheek.

The film would be utterly banal without the novelty of the high-toned Streep in an action role. The fact that she makes a believable Supermom, however, is totally irrelevant to action audiences, which are made up mostly of men who don’t cotton to the idea of a woman rescuing her man from another man. Even in the futuristic “Alien” series, Sigourney Weaver battled another ovum-bearer to save herself, her adopted daughter and her cat. This may explain why the heroine here ultimately loses control of her fate. And that twist of plot violates a cardinal rule of storytelling—never take the protagonist’s fate out of his hands. Or is that her hands?

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