Picks and Pans Review: The River Wild

updated 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn

Streep's movies lately seem to be less about acting than about career. As she has explained, she is a 45-year-old star struggling to maintain the Big Mo in an industry that 1) pays larger salaries to male stars and 2) is increasingly dependent on internationally marketable action blockbusters. Streep's predicament doesn't quite wring the heart—my mind keeps leaping to an image of the Little Prince alone on his tiny planet—but she is Meryl Streep, and she has been a rare force of passion and intelligence in movies. She shouldn't end up like Bette Davis, playing a spittle-mouthed old bat in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

So now Streep is the star of this competently made thriller about a history teacher, her estranged husband (Strathairn) and their son (Joe Mazzello), whose Whitewater rafting trip is shanghaied by a murderous thief (Bacon). For the movie, shot on the rapids of Montana's Kootenai River, Streep did most of her own rowing, which is more significant than her deftly deployed range of nuances (including a remarkable laugh that, in one crucial scene, slides from mockery into despair). The real star of the movie, after all, is the terrible churning rapids that Streep and crew will face as they speed downriver.

How unfortunate, then, that Nature cannot be taught to act. Despite stereophonic sound that makes every surge of the river smack against the ears like a tsunami, the much-awaited climax isn't all that gripping. It looks like superior footage from a fishing segment on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Could it be that we have been spoiled by big, whoop-de-do thrillers like True Lies, with their exploding bridges and minor nuclear explosions? At any rate, one of the high points here is when the family dog, a yellow lab, jumps into the water. Sploosh!

Streep's next project is the coveted role of the lovelorn farm wife who falls in love with a National Geographic photographer played by Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County. That sounds like the sort of intensely romantic part she does best. (PG-13)

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