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The River Wild is the opposite of sprawling movies like Gladiator. The cast of characters is small, and it’s not even necessary to keep track of their names. The setting is almost entirely restricted to one location, along a white-water river. The events occur over the course of just a few days. And in this tightly focused time and place, director Curtis Hanson creates an involving and tense story about a family and the terrifying situation they find themselves in when their vacation takes an unexpected turn, as the “nice guys” who are traveling down the river with them turn out to be very dangerous characters indeed.

River Wild, The
The characters in The River Wild are both well-drawn and well-acted, with strong casting choices. Meryl Streep brings the character of Gail to life; the opening sequence of Gail rowing on the Charles River and her confident handling of the raft on the wild river, make it entirely believable that she was once a hot-shot white-water guide. David Strathairn (as Tom) also puts in a strong performance as Gail’s nearly-estranged husband; the tension in their relationship with each other, and with their son, makes an excellent counterpoint to the tension of the events that threaten their lives. In this case, the characters are both sympathetic and realistically flawed, making them genuinely human. Joseph Mazello, coming off of performances in Jurassic Park and Shadowlands, brings a recognizable child-actor face but also a realistic performance to the role of Gail and Tom’s son. Even the more minor character of the second hijacker (John C. Reilly) is spot-on.

And, of course, Kevin Bacon nearly steals the show with a perfect performance as the completely creepy Wade. It’s hard to imagine a better casting choice for this role, in which the actor must start off amiable and progress into dangerousness by degrees. The River Wild is a great example of how even a movie that could be considered a lightweight summer flick can be brought to a significantly higher level by casting top-notch actors and giving them a good script to work with.

The plot is straightforward yet well-handled to produce a high level of dramatic tension. The characters behave sensibly; there’s no stupid behavior just to advance the plot. The white-water sequences are exciting and included in just the right amount: the director having correctly realized that the drama of the movie comes mostly from the interactions among the characters and their reactions to the white water, not from the action sequences themselves, which are the icing (and very flavorful icing, at that) on the cake. The concluding events are possibly not quite so believable as the earlier sections, but overall it’s an enjoyable and dramatic viewing experience.

River Wild, The
It’s also a great action movie for families with older kids, since while it has scary moments, there’s no gore, and most of the tension is in the threatened outcome of events. Some deaths occur, one of which is somewhat disturbing, but there’s certainly no glorification of violence. In fact, one of the strengths of the plot is the way in which the characters behave like real people, not action heroes, by trying the most straightforward and non-violent ways of escaping their dilemma first.

The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is satisfactory, if not stunning. A few flaws in the print are noticeable as lines and specks in the image from time to time, and the sharpness isn’t as good as it could be. However, there’s nothing that will distract from the viewing experience. The image is clear and free of noise, with good color and contrast.

The film doesn’t make full use of its Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. There’s not much use of “surround” effects, and the sound seems confined mostly to the front and center speakers. This is disappointing, since there could have been good use of surround sound in action scenes such as the river rapids sequences. Dialogue is clear throughout the movie.

River Wild, The
There are no extras on this disc. It’s too bad, as it would have been nice to see even a brief documentary on how the white-water scenes were created. With a similarly bare-bones DTS edition already in existence as well as the Dolby 5.1 version, it seems unlikely that a more “loaded” special edition is on the horizon, so if you’re interested in the movie, don’t wait.

Overall, this is a really fun, enjoyable movie, with definite repeat viewing value. The only hesitation that you might have in picking it up might be whether to opt for the more expensive DTS version instead, to get a better audio experience.