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THE RIVER WILD- * * * 1/2 - Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, Joseph Mazzello, John C. Reilly; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, vulgarity, brief veiled nudity); Century 9 Theaters, Cinemark Sandy Movies 9, Cineplex Odeon Crossroads Plaza, Holladay Center, Midvalley and Trolley North Cinemas, Redwood Drive-in (with "The Cowboy Way"), the Reel Theaters.

Move over, Keanu Reeves. Get out of town, Charlie Sheen.The real action star to threaten Bruce Willis' "Die Hard" crown and make us forget Sylvester Stallone's "Cliffhanger" and "Demolition Man" one-two punch from last year has emerged.

And it's Meryl Streep.

Yes, that Meryl Streep. Two-time Oscar-winning, serious film actress, angst-ridden character player Meryl Streep!

Who would have thought . . . ?

But the truth is, she's fabulous in this hair-raising, terrifying white-water rafting thriller - and she's also obviously navigating much of the river herself!

Actually, "The River Wild" is very much a director's showcase, filled with chilling set pieces that are superbly structured by Curtis Hanson, who fulfills the promise he showed with "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle."

But for all the flashy, chills-and-spills action that is going on here, it is Streep who anchors and centers the film, capturing the imagination as she struggles to save the day, all the while managing to somehow be vulnerable, tough and sexy - all at the same time.

"The River Wild" would probably be an enjoyable, mindless actioner without Streep - but with her, it also works as a solid character piece and makes for a much better, more believable ride.

And that's a good thing, since the plotting - by first-time screenwriter Denis O'Neill - leaves no cliche unturned.

The story begins as Boston schoolteacher Gail (Streep) sets up a river-rafting vacation for the family, ostensibly to celebrate the 10th birthday of her son Roarke (Joseph Mazzello, of "Jurassic Park"). But the trip is really an apparently futile attempt to salvage her marriage to workaholic architect Tom (played by the terrific character actor David Strathairn, of "Sneakers," "The Firm" and many others).

Tom begs off, using work as an excuse, so disappointed Gail and Roarke head for Montana without him. Gail, a former guide on the river who knows very well its easiest and most dangerous areas, is about to shove off with Roarke and their dog Maggie in tow, when they encounter a trio of mysterious and seemingly inexperienced rafters, led by the dangerously charming Wade (Kevin Bacon). And then, at the last minute, Tom shows up.

The rest of the film gradually builds suspense as Wade and friends attempt to ingratiate themselves to Gail and Roarke, which causes Tom some jealousy. But, as you might suspect, the relationship, which starts out amicably, soon becomes quite scary, as Gail and family discover that Wade and his pals have just committed a robbery and are on the lam, using the river as a getaway vehicle.

There are some wildly illogical elements here, especially when Tom becomes separated from the group and goes about setting up a complicated rescue scheme. And let's not even talk about that ridiculous moonlit skinny-dipping scene - as if Streep's character is really going to do that when she's already expressed concern that these guys hanging around them are "creepy"!

But don't think about it too much. Just enjoy the gorgeous cinematography by Robert Elswit ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), Hanson's incredible positioning of all the action and the confident, rooted performances by Streep, Strathairn and Bacon. They are all terrific.

It's been said that if a film isn't on paper to begin with, no director or set of actors, no matter how talented, can overcome its problems. But here's a textbook case that proves the exception, as the director and actors are so good they somehow manage to raise the movie up a level, so that the story's inconsistencies and sillier aspects are hardly noticeable.

"The River Wild" is rated PG-13, primarily for violence, though there are also some profane and vulgar remarks and the aforementioned brief veiled nudity.