Meryl Streep has toned arms and tawny, rippling thighs in The River Wild (Universal, PG-13), and she uses them to do more than ride the rapids. She acts with them. She convinces you that her character, a middle-class wife and mother, is also an instinctive athlete, a woman who relies on fluid physical strength to keep herself centered. In the movie's white-water thrill sequences of which there are exactly two her raft becomes a storm-tossed throne, with Streep astride it like the feisty queen of the jocks. She's the right actress to play a humanized action heroine; she rides the waves with feeling. Yet even with Streep to hold The River Wild together, the movie isn't much. Directed by Curtis Hanson, it's a cheesy, dawdling, plot-hole-riddled thriller. Compared with this one, a truly ingenious pulse-pounder such as Speed begins to look like Shakespeare.
Streep and David Strathairn play an unhappily married couple who take their 10-year-old son (Joseph Mazzello) on a rafting trip in the sun-dappled Northwest. Along the way, they bump into a pair of leering nogoodniks (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly) who end up stranded downriver. Because Streep used to be a professional guide, she agrees to let them travel with her family until they reach safety (big mistake).
Once Bacon and his stone-faced friend have captured the family, we're cued to see just where this hybrid of The Desperate Hours and Deliverance is heading: Streep will have to guide the bad guys through the Gauntlet, a treacherous series of rapids and falls. But before the film reaches its climactic river run, which is photographed to make the audience experience every queasy bump and plunge, we have to sit through 90 minutes of draggy TV-movie melodrama. Most of The River Wild moves at an annoyingly maladroit, stop-and-go tempo it feels too much like a camping trip and almost nothing that happens is very believable. Would Strathairn's distant, workaholic father really bring his architectural drawings into the wilderness? Would Streep, however troubled her marriage, flirt outrageously with Bacon's aging hunk right in front of her young son? And while we can certainly believe that the kid, furious at his father, would bond with Bacon, would he agree to hide the fact that his new pal is carrying a loaded gun?
After a while, Strathairn escapes, and we wait for him to help save his family. He climbs cliffs; he falls off cliffs. He runs. He sends smoke signals. What, in God's name, is he doing going for a merit badge? Training for the decathlon? Finally, the payoff to this bizarre odyssey arrives, and it turns out to be as laughable as the workout itself. That's when I realized what was going on: The filmmakers had to keep Strathairn integral to the plot but they couldn't let him act too heroically, lest he upstage Meryl. They needn't have worried. Streep's stalwart maternal macho is the one convincing element in a thriller that emasculates itself as it goes along. C+