The late Curtis Hanson’s ‘The River Wild,’ released in 1994, was far from his best work, particularly when compared to his other thriller movies such as ‘Bad Influence’ and ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.’ The story is rather formulaic, but the movie remains watchable, thanks to Meryl Streep’s engaging lead performance in her first action role. Not to forget the thrilling whitewater rafting third act, along with Kevin Bacon’s sneaky antagonist turn and the late Jerry Goldsmith’s riveting score. The 1994 original even earned Streep and Bacon an acting nomination each at the Golden Globes.
Nearly 30 years later, ‘The River Wild’ is back, minus the word “the” in the title. It wasn’t a sequel but more of a reimagining of the 1994 adventure thriller. Frankly, I’m not aware of the existence of a new ‘River Wild’ movie until recently. I often have reservations about a successful movie (yes, ‘The River Wild’ was a box-office hit back in the day) getting a remake/reboot/reimagining or whatever you want to call it. And then, the studio only granted the filmmaker with a lower budget and a non-A-lister cast.
I wasn’t expecting much, but ‘River Wild’ turns out to be quite a surprise. The 2023 version is no match for the combined star power of Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon and Hanson’s flair for rousing set pieces. But Ben Katai, best known for co-writing ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ alongside Bryan Bertino and ’30 Days of Night: Dark Days’, manages to compensate for his ‘River Wild’ by smartly not replicating the 1994 original. The movie retains its rafting premise, but the overall story – credited to Katai and Mike Nguyen Le – is different.
Instead of introducing Joey (Leighton Meester) as a rafting expert and a mother like Meryl Streep’s Gail Hartman, she plays an out-of-practice doctor who wants to get away from her troubled past. One day, she meets her river-guide brother Gray (Taran Killam) for a whitewater rafting expedition. The trip includes two female tourists, Karissa (Olivia Swann) and Van (Eve Connolly), and Gray’s childhood friend, Trevor (Adam Brody). The latter turns out to be an ex-convict recently out of prison, and he’s bad news.
Katai doesn’t waste time setting up his story. He keeps the pace reasonably lean at its 91-minute length (the original runs nearly 2 hours long) as he takes an efficient route in establishing his small group of characters. The good news is, the movie has a better-than-average cast, with Leighton Meester excels with a solid lead performance as Joey. Adam Brody is equally impressive as Trevor, whose impulsive aggression and violent tendencies make him a fearsome antagonist.
The rest of the supporting characters, including Taran Killam, Olivia Swann, and Eve Connolly, acquit themselves well in their respective roles. I’m glad Katai doesn’t simply write them as throwaway characters and even bring out the best in them, even though some of the supporting roles here have limited screen time. Interestingly, Killam is primarily known for his comedy works, notably appearing in ‘Saturday Night Live’ and others like the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starred mockumentary actioner ‘Killing Gunther.’
And yet, he proves he has the dramatic prowess for playing a conflicted brother caught between an estranged siblings’ relationship with Meester’s Joey and putting up with Trevor.
‘River Wild’ may lack the action-packed thrills of the 1994 original, particularly the rafting sequences. But Katai still manages to make do with whatever limited budget and resources he has at his disposal, offering surprisingly well-staged moments of the characters paddling in the rough and choppy waters.
The movie does a good job incorporating Katai’s technical know-how in ratcheting up the tension with a mix of dynamic camerawork and Tristan Clopet’s gripping score. Then, there’s Gevorg Gev Juguryan’s atmospheric cinematography of the river and wilderness, reportedly shot on location in Slovakia, Hungary, and Bosnia. Some of the overhead shots are breathtaking, especially during the daylight scenes, as Juguryan deserves praise for capturing the idyllic beauty of its overall setting.
The 2023 version is also darker and edgier in its tone, with ominous dread lingering right from the earlier parts of the movie. Katai goes for the jugular, as seen with his way of exposing Trevor’s true nature as he begins to hurt anyone who tries to go against him. And that includes killing a person without hesitation. In other words, ‘River Wild’ is like watching a gritty, psychological-horror genre. One that is tense and mean-spirited rather than the adventure-thriller approach seen in the 1994 original.