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Streep in the Wild

Move aside Sly and Arnold, Meryl's gone muscular

Meryl Streep is as good as Arnold Schwarzenegger. I never thought I'd be saying this. But then again, I never thought that Streep, she of the varied accents and subtle emotional shadings, would star as the heroic lead in an action-adventure flick. But she does, and the most accomplished actress of her generation makes The River Wild an exciting ride. What's going on here?

In one sense, Streep is suffering backlash for her extraordinary abilities. A virtuoso of nuance, Streep used to receive Oscar nominations as a matter of course, nine of them, in fact, winning twice. But somewhere along the line, Hollywood got inexplicably tired of her consummate dramatic performances. So instead of the likes of Sophie's Choice, she was given She-Devil. And while moderate success came with Postcards from the Edge and Defending Your Life, most of these comedies, like Heartburn and Death Becomes Her, flopped. Did the suits realize her talent was being wasted in this light fare? Did they offer her the substantial roles she does best? Of course not. "How about white-water rapids?" they said.

But in another sense, a rugged, courageous Streep might bode well. Hollywood could finally be learning that there's no reason why women can't -- a la Stallone, Willis and Van Damme -- save the day. Shooting guns, beating up villains, flexing muscles: it's time to fling open the doors to the all-boys club, giving admittance to more than just Sigourney Weaver.

From this perspective, two of this summer's biggest offerings filled the bill only partly: though Susan Sarandon was every bit Tommy Lee Jones' match in The Client, their battle of wills excluded the physical; and while Sandra Bullock tested her mettle driving the runaway bus in Speed, she was simply Keanu Reeves' pretty, wisecracking sidekick. But in The River Wild, Streep is lean in mind and body, playing a very strong, very appealing former river guide who must navigate her family through a treacherous river journey frothing with bad guys and bad spills.

To find a similarly memorable movie that stars a woman with such humane grit you have to go back almost 15 years to John Cassavetes' Gloria. But as a gun-wielding foster mother outwitting urban hoods, Gena Rowlands benefited from a script far superior to what first-time screenwriter Denis O'Neill gives Streep. This should be next on Hollywood's agenda: providing women the quality screenplays Harrison Ford gets in his action-adventure-suspense movies.

Still, making due with Meryl Streep isn't exactly like being saddled with, say, Patrick Swayze. She's earthy, caring, robust, determined and extremely able-bodied. Athletic in movement and with the most expressive of eyes, she's so convincing as a loving protector that she rescues not only her film family, but the standardly plotted film itself.

The story starts in Boston, as Gail (Streep) prepares her prepubescent son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello) for a white-water rafting trip to celebrate his birthday. Since Gail's architect husband Tom (David Strathairn) hasn't eaten dinner at home for months, it's soon clear that the trip is designed as much to help the troubled marriage as it is to please the birthday boy. A principal clue that husband and wife have drifted apart is that the family dog will obey only her, and in the early scenes Streep is so concerned with Tom, and Strathairn so tentative with Gail, that these two superb performers make us believe their difficulties.

Roarke isn't too pleased when, not unexpectedly, dad announces that he can't come, and the boy is only half-excited when, unexpectedly, dad appears at the Montana ranger station just as mom is about to push their raft into the water. Director Curtis Hanson, who achieved popularity jeopardizing family life in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, has Tom hangdoggedly arrive in his office clothes, toting a waterproof briefcase. Hanson also has Gail's parents be on hand to take care of Roarke's kid sister; the tyke is too young to go rafting and so stays with plain-talking grandma and deaf grandpa. (Sign language, of course, will help Gail and family in the climax. Hence the reason for the scene.)

After a quick change of clothes and heart, Tom looks ready to test the waters, and by movie's end does poignantly make his family proud of him. Still, Roarke is initially more impressed with a suddenly appearing stranger named Wade, played with compelling backwoods eeriness by Kevin Bacon, because he's obviously more virile than sensitive dad. One of the first things Wade does is present Roarke with a Lollapalooza cap. Since Wade is dressed entirely in black, is possessive of a bulging bag and eyes Gail with lascivious intent, the audience immediately knows to be suspicious of him and his dumbish partner Terry (John C. Reilly, in requisite scraggly beard). Gail, Tom and Roarke, though, aren't allowed by the script to be quite so readily observant.

Instead, they consider Wade, whom they keep bumping into as they float the river, a charming rogue, a rascal who jokes with Gail about her sage advice that "you don't command the river -- you let the river command you" and makes pals with Roarke. So when Wade's guide turns up missing, Gail offers to help him out. The first, and lesser, of the film's two tensions is waiting for Wade's true nature to be discovered. Tom is the first to sense something since, when he rescues Wade from what appears to be a drowning, Wade seems to be trying to drown him. Then Wade gives Roarke $200 as a birthday present and, later that same night, becomes a peeping Tom, forcing Gail to revise her earlier assessment of him as a harmless arrested adolescent. The final straw for Roarke, who ultimately chucks his Lollapalooza hat from the father-substitute into the river, comes when Wade tries to kill the family dog. Of course, why the pooch, who's no Lassie, is on the trip at all is unfathomable to anyone save the moviemakers, who use him to hearten Tom in an unintentionally laughable way after Tom escapes danger courtesy of a cliche. The dog isn't the only cliche; there's also a dozing sentinel, a curious (but unaware) ranger and a host of others, including a scene with a petulant Roarke that will make you groan. Did I mention the all-important pocketknife that Tom gives Roarke as his birthday present?

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