River Wild (Universal, PG-13)

Ben Ketai’s River Wild — a re-imagining of Curtis Hanson’s 1994 film The River Wild — is one of those movies that’s very difficult to discuss in full without spoiling major portions of it, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the original film. Ketai definitely shows some chops when it comes to directing action and building tension. His and Mike Nguyen Le’s script, however, ironically makes this heavily water-based film feel drier and drier as it floats down the rapids of its plot.

Joey (Leighton Meester) is joining her brother Gray (Taran Killam) for one of the many white-water rafting trips he leads professionally. Trevor (Adam Brody), their mutual friend, is coming along as well. Gray recently secured Trevor a job with his small expedition business after Trevor’s three-year stint in prison ended. For a trip led by a friendship triangle with more than its fair share of rocky undercurrents, these three and Gray’s two young female customers (played by Olivia Swann and Eve Connolly) seem to be getting along quite well over the first leg of the course.

When an accident occurs that not only threatens someone’s life, but group harmony as well, Ketai mines themes of suspicion, lies, and dynamics between men and women. This first section after the film’s inciting incident frankly had me on the edge of my seat, and not just because of the general tension in the air. There’s a way in which the film starts to cast doubt on everything and everyone you’re seeing, since you don’t know several bits of crucial backstory.

Once twists and turns are taken, a film which could have been infinitely more intriguing becomes infinitely more dull from a thematic perspective. Because its main twist is probably as obvious and anti-climactic as it could have been, River Wild ceases to dazzle beyond its solid acting and action after that point.

Still, watching the physical action play out to its conclusion is mostly rather enjoyable, and the dramatic commitment of Meester and Killam (always the most underrated performer during his time on Saturday Night Live) is to be highly commended. Adam Brody’s work feels a bit less committed, except in the action scenes, which are uniformly strong. Kudos to the actors and stunt people here, because there are several scenes — both in water and on land — that are well-timed, well-choreographed, and, in a couple of cases, incorporate some really interesting practical effects that I haven’t seen before. Perhaps these things stand out because there aren’t really that many movies in general about rafting (yes, they do make the obligatory Deliverance joke here), but even so, you have to give credit where credit is due.

I don’t know why there aren’t more rafting movies. Perhaps they’re difficult to insure, or perhaps someone in an office somewhere has come to the conclusion that they just don’t make very much money. Whatever the case, if rafting’s your thing, a unique and often quite enjoyable and intriguing adventure film like River Wild (and its 1994 cousin) might be right up your alley. Or right down your river, if you prefer.| George Napper

River Wild is available on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD beginning August 1 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and will also be available for streaming on Netflix.

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