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Despite Strong Acting by Streep, `River Wild' Sinks in Watery Plot

THE most interesting thing about ``The River Wild'' is Meryl Streep's performance. Or rather, it's the opportunity to see this highly skilled, notably cerebral actress in a movie that cares precious little about anything but hair-raising stunts, over-the-top suspense sequences, and the soggiest series of action scenes since Steven Spielberg made his first big splash in ``Jaws.''

Streep plays Gail, a 30-ish mother who lives in Boston with her architect husband and school-age children. While she's a regular city woman, she enjoys nothing more than an occasional sojourn in the Montana wilderness, where she grew up and had her first job as a river-rafting guide.

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Vacation turns sour

The story begins with a squabble between Gail and her spouse, a workaholic who regularly spoils vacation plans by getting stuck in the office with deadlines to meet. Sure enough, he's too busy for the family outing again this year, so Gail sets off for a small-scale rafting trip with only her young son Roarke for companionship.

Dad shows up for the adventure after all, landing in Montana just as the others are about to hop in their boat, but everyone groans when they see he's brought his sketchpads and preoccupations along with him.

Perhaps tensions will be eased by the new friendship Gail and Roarke have struck with three nice men headed for the same down-river journey.

But the further they go, the more those fellows seem a little - well, peculiar.

It doesn't take long to guess they're bad guys, who just robbed a cattle auction and committed a murder in the process. Soon they've killed one of their own, too, and the remaining villains have no idea how to handle their getaway boat. They decide to proceed with their escape as planned, using our heroine as their reluctant guide.

Having built her career on relatively dignified fare, from ``Plenty'' and ``Ironweed'' to ``Sophie's Choice'' and ``The French Lieutenant's Woman,'' the talented Streep might be expected to row vigorously away from such obviously lowbrow material as ``The River Wild'' offers her.

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True, the screenplay has an occasional clever line for her to say, and she gets to build a mildly interesting relationship with David Strathairn as her husband. But most of the time there's little for her to do but gaze at the scenery, smile at her son, scowl at the creeps on the other end of the boat, and wave her oars around during the action scenes.

What's a gifted artist like her doing in a place like this? One theory suggests that American actresses over 40 face such a dearth of decent opportunities that any potential hit - even a crassly calculated one like this - is too tempting to pass up.

A less gloomy hypothesis is that Streep enjoys being versatile as well as thoughtful in her work, and actually relished the challenge of casting off her high-art baggage and plunging into an entertaining no-brainer for a change.

Whatever the motivation, she does a credible job with the scanty material that floats her way, playing her meagerly written role so earnestly you'd almost think the project had some real meaning.

Other actors fall short

Unfortunately, her costars are less successful. As the architect, Strathairn gets to play a real intellectual, but wraps him in a stiff-bodied pretentiousness that conveys less mental energy than Streep's full-muscled approach. As the bad guys, Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly look their parts but bring little imagination to them beyond some ``Deliverance''-style nastiness.

``The River Wild'' was directed by Curtis Hanson, who had a hit with ``The Hand That Rocks the Cradle'' two years ago. That picture brazenly recycled familiar thriller material, and since ``The River Wild'' is basically an outdoor variation on similar themes, it seems doubly derivative.

Its most effective scenes are spectacularly photographed, and the story springs a few surprises while keeping gratuitous violence to a comparatively low level.

But there's nothing to think about once the watery plot has run its course, and even Streep's plucky performance isn't enough to keep it steadily afloat.

* ``The River Wild'' has a PG-13 rating; it contains violence and vulgar language.

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