Gail Hartman (Meryl Streep) used to be a ranger in Idaho, around the Salmon River area, where she enjoyed white water rafting given half the chance. Those days are behind her, but she does like to go back there as her parents live in the area, and she has been planning a holiday for her kids and husband, Tom (David Strathairn), though he is proving reluctant to join them, much to her frustration, for he is swamped with work as an architect. Therefore it seems as if it will just be the three of them on this trip, though once they reach their destination her eldest, son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello), strikes up a friendship with a fellow camper, the apparently decent Wade (Kevin Bacon)...
It will come as no surprise to you to learn that Wade is far from decent, and his nice guy act is precisely that, an act, though as far as we can perceive he believes he is acting reasonably and cannot understand why others don't agree, such is the mind of the psychopath. Or the movie psychopath, at least, though Bacon brought some credibility to his role that could have tipped over into the ripest of hams, perhaps thanks to script doctor Carrie Fisher giving him the best lines. But as this was not the only villain the star would play, it was something else that brought some degree of interest to The River Wild, and that was connected to the casting as well: Meryl Streep, action woman!
Yes, that celebrated thespian and patron of the arts did indeed star in an action movie, largely thanks to her being a proper movie star and in the nineteen-nineties, a lot of the supposedly too good for the crowpleasers-type ac-tors were turning up in all sorts of unlikely places. Fair enough, most of them would essay the part of bad guys in thrillers, and most of them were men anyway, but Meryl was not quite part of that club, maybe because she was better known for her films than her stage work, so felt to audiences as if she belonged to them at their local picture emporium rather than justifying some extortionate ticket prices to see her offer up her Shakespeare or Pinter in the West End.
This was also part of Streep's attempt to expand her cinematic range, therefore she performed in more comedies, got to sing, took on "is that...?" kind of work, and generally tried to prove herself Jill of all trades. In truth, it's not too difficult to understand why the action thing never played out for her, The River Wild did fair business but did not exactly set the box office alight, and as it was in this genre yet did not feature one single explosion - and only had one gun between the characters - it was not the more conventional action flick that a Bruce Willis would have been appearing in. Here it was the water that was the chief special effect, those rapids intended to set the pulse pounding as it was well publicised that Streep more or less did all her own stunts, method-style, or perhaps Jackie Chan-style.
That is probably the only time you will see Meryl Streep compared to Jackie Chan, though they both exhibited the same powerhouse work ethic albeit displayed in different roles. She was so dominant here that Strathairn, no slouch in the acting department himself, was thrown well into her shadow, Gail's superheroine approach to both motherhood and her path through life rendering Tom so meek that no matter how they tried to beef up his part in the story, he came across like a third wheel. The real substance was the antagonism between Gail, trying to cling to civilisation as if this were an uncredited remake of Deliverance, and Wade, who cares little for the niceties of polite society and will ride roughshod over anyone who gets in his way, with a side order of beating up and bullying anyone he feels is weaker than he is, just for kicks (lots of slapping here). John C. Reilly had an early stepping stone appearance as Wade's dim henchman, and it was all very obvious (will they run... The Gauntlet?! Yes.), but it's not often you got to see a multiple Oscar-winner literally flex her muscles. Though Bacon did distractingly resemble sixties Brit rocker Joe Brown. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.