Streep Runs The Gauntlet
"The River Wild" is by no means a bad movie but it is an underwhelming one which left me wanting something more. And the reason why it left me wanting something more is that in effect this should be a double danger storyline, we have the danger of a couple of desperate criminals who force a family to take them down a river and then you have the danger of nature as in the white water rapids they must negotiate. But where as we have the danger of the criminals who could turn nasty at any moment the danger of the river never feels tangible leaving you bereft of that excitement. It also doesn't help that for half of the movie it pussy foots around with family issues till eventually we get to the real drama of the criminals.
During a family trip white water rafting, former guide Gail Hartman (Meryl Streep - Death Becomes Her) and her family end up coming to the rescue of two fellow rafters, Wade (Kevin Bacon - A Few Good Men) and Terry (John C. Reilly) who appear to have been abandoned by their guide. But all is not as it seems when the Hartman's discover that their passengers are a couple of criminals capable of anything including murder and they want Gail to take them through The Gauntlet, the most dangerous set of rapids which has killed people who have tried in the past.
To be honest "The River Wild" could have been a terrific movie as it has all the components for a tense experience and that starts with the storyline. Now whilst I don't like the fact that for half of the movie we have too much focus on family issues as Gail and Tom's marriage seems to have hit the rocks it is important, we just get too much of it. It's the same with all the spoon fed information as we have Gail, Tom and their son Roarke able to communicate in sign language because of Gail's dad and they also know all about the native Indian ways such as smoke signals because all of this is important but the way we learn about it is so forced it feels like director Curtis Hanson is being patronizing. But whilst this is wrong the storyline of these two criminals forcing Hail to navigate them down the river is good and reminds me of movies from the 50s and 60s.
Now as already pointed out "The River Wild" should be a double danger movie but only one of those dangers really works. That is the danger which comes from Kevin Bacon as Wade because he is an ominous character, lurking in the shadows watching Gail, getting close to Roarke whilst trying to test Tom's patience. You can feel the danger before it becomes clear as to how dangerous and evil he is and then you have him turning the screw, attacking Tom, threatening Gail and being cunning enough to outwit Gail, Tom and Roarke when they start to fear for their lives.
But then you have the other danger which should be the power of nature as in the rapids. Now in fairness watching the raft crash through a series of increasingly spectacular rapids is entertaining but you never feel the danger. Basically their is no adrenalin rush from close shaves and it is for this reason that "The River Wild" leaves you feeling cheated as if you've gone on what looks like it should be a rollercoaster ride and it turns out to be a merry-go-round.
Despite this "The River Wild" is still entertaining and Curtis Hanson has delivered a nice balance when it comes to the impressive landscape, slotting in some picturesque scenes without it ever interrupting the flow. But in many ways it's the movies stars which make "The River Wild" work and whilst the likes of David Strathairn and John C. Reilly are solid it is Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon who draw you in. Streep does another good performance of a strong and determined woman whilst Bacon gives us a nice bit of evil, not over the top evil but that of a criminal who is cunning and not afraid to kill. It's because Streep and Bacon bring their characters to life is the reason you keep watching even when it does start to become a little too unbelievable as it approaches MacGyver territory.
What this all boils down to is that "The River Wild" is an entertaining movie but despite a good storyline it ends up just average. And for me the reason it is just an average movie is that the excitement and danger of the white water rapids never materialises and so leaves you wanting for something more.