Yes, the year is 1994, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is showing signs of slowing down. Coming off the disappointing Last Action Hero, Arnold released Junior – the movie where he got pregnant (you read that correctly). Sylvester Stallone didn’t fare better in 1994, releasing the lackluster flick the Specialist. Even the usually reliable Jean-Claude Van Damme stumbled for the first time with the uncharacteristically uninspired Street Fighter – the rare subpar movie adaption of a video game.
1994. The landscape was ready for Meryl Streep. Streep, long since held back in traditional “acting” roles in such films as Out of Africa, Deer Hunter (which stunk), and Kramer vs. Kramer, finally shows why she got into movies in the first place: kicking serious arse! The action star boy’s club knew they’d met their match and things wouldn’t be the same as, in the wake of the River Wild, Streep would go on to star in countless action movies starting with her breakout role as Wonder Woman.
Okay, a SLIGHT exaggeration, though the River Wild does barely qualify as an action movie (it’s a third action, a third suspense, and a third drama) and Streep is most definitely the star.
The River Wild begins with a family in crisis planning a river rafting vacation to celebrate the birthday of their son Roarke. Roarke is a fairly well adjusted kid, for someone who has been cursed with the name “Roarke.” Dad Tom (David Strathairn) is an uptight workaholic who has grown distant from wife Gail (Streep) and their son. Tom originally backs out of the trip to take care of some important work, though he ultimately shows up to salvage his marriage, though he does bring the work with him.
Before disembarking, they meet a charismatic stranger (aren’t they all?!) named Wade (Kevin Bacon). Wade charms both Gail and little Roarke. Roarke is obviously in desperate need of a real boy’s name and a father figure, much to the dismay his actual father, Tom. Wade and his dimwit friend Terry (John C. Reilly) eventually hitch a ride with the family when their guide ditches them . . . or did he? (Insert dramatic music.)
The situation turns dire and Wade and Terry are revealed to be burglars attempting to make a surreptitious getaway. Roarke is stunned that his new surrogate father is a villain, and says to Wade, “I thought you were a nice guy.” Wade’s response: “I am a nice guy. Just a different kind of nice guy.”
Gail used to be a river rafting guide lady, so Wade and Terry need Gail to ferry them to the end of the river, past lethal rapids that Gail pleads with them are insurmountable. Hence the source of conflict, as burglars need Mom and use Dad and Son as leverage, but Family knows that once they’ve gotten the bad guys where they need to go they’re as good as dead.
The scenery and cinematography is beautiful too, which certainly helps any movie. The cast is great — Bacon’s villain is a show stealer; Straitharn plays his repressed, businessman to perfection; and Streep as the protagonist forced to defend her family is believable and sympathetic. The kid deserves kudos for keeping up with the pros. It’s worth noting that there’s no reason to tell from this movie that John C. Reilly would go on to be the acclaimed actor from such great films as Step-Brothers.
Though the River Wild seems to straddle the line between action movie and drama, in re-watching the movie some fourteen years after I first (and last) saw the movie, I think the film most comfortably slips into the thriller mode a la the “master of suspense” Alfred Hitchcock. There are scenes where tension is wonderfully amplified as everyday people are forced to do extraordinary things, one classic Hitchcock trademark. Also there are a number of anxiety inducing scenes where delaying the impending conclusion amps up the tension even more, which Hitchcock loved.
This is a great little movie that deserves more attention than it gets. The River Wild has a neat, pro-family, parents work through your problems, spend time with your kids and try to kill Kevin Bacon while doing it message that everyone can get behind. Well, don’t try and kill Kevin Bacon. Bacon seems like a nice guy in real life, but the rest of it I recommend. And rafting is fun, so try that (without inviting Kevin Bacon, if possible; yes, he seems like a nice guy but have you heard his band? Yikes).
Of course, the River Wild sort-of falls into the ancient Hollywood tradition of thwarting villains is all it takes to heal all family wounds motif, but the Mom and Dad started trying to work things out before the zany “survive at all costs” shenanigans occurred.
I’ve long considered starting a “save your marriage” company where my friends and I play evil villains, kidnap your family, and let you save them. Saving your wife’s life from blogging thugs is certainly all you need to repair your failed marriage. We’ll call it “the Hollywood solution to real problems” . . . I am going to be so RICH!
–Daniel J. Roos
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