It sure keeps you on the edge of your seat, for which you’re grateful, because Proof of Life also has wide stretches of yawn-time. In this film, an American engineer, Peter Bowman (David Morse, The Green Mile), is kidnapped by narco-guerrillas in an Andean country. In a heartbreakingly haunting shot, Bowman looks behind as he is being forced into the rebels’ truck; the metropolitan skyline of home and safety seems to be only a hand-reach away. Bowman is abandoned by his employer and the U.S. embassy, and his wife, Alice (Meg Ryan, Courage Under Fire), is rendered helpless by the country’s corruption. Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe, Gladiator), a globe-trotting K&R (“kidnap and ransom”) expert takes over. During the long, frustrating months, Thorne struggles valiantly to negotiate Bowman’s release — falling in love with Alice in the process. Once “proof of life” is received (i.e., proof that Bowman has not been killed), Thorne joins forces with K&R colleague, Dino (David Caruso, formerly of TV’s N.Y.P.D. Blue), and stages a bloody commando-raid rescue. The script by Tony Gilroy (Devil’s Advocate) is lean and subtle, muscled with undercurrents of terror and longing. In a genre full of cliches and caricatures, director Taylor Hackford chose restraint and understatement to tell this story. Combined with gut-wrenching action scenes, the balance works most of the time. So what’s wrong? You have to wonder what all the fuss was about Ryan’s real-life affair with Crowe, which broke up her marriage to Dennis Quaid. The lovers appear so passionless in Proof of Life that they must have been kissing during post-production, because it sure doesn’t look like they were doing it during filming. Anthony and Cleopatra it ain’t. Don’t get me wrong: The actors, as far as the script allowed their characters to go, were terrific. Ryan pulled out all the stops. (Though I do wonder why, with a $15 million salary, she couldn’t manage to hire a hairdresser who’d give her a comb-out.) With his raw good looks and primal big-screen presence (embellished by his native Australian accent), Crowe definitely has stardom in his horoscope. Morse is utterly convincing as the kidnap victim caught between rage and despair. Caruso steals scenes as the glory-seeking commando. And Pamela Reed, as Bowman’s neurotic sister, provides a painfully real picture of the terror kidnap families must go through. Reed disappears from the movie fairly early, and her departure leaves the movie without a crackly edge. Only balls-out action revives it. Whatever you do, don’t exit the theater early. Throughout Proof of Life, director Hackford insinuates the mythical country itself as a major character: the people, the politics, the religion, the superstitions. In the closing credits, he pays breathtaking tribute to the magnificent scenery of Ecuador, where most of the movie was filmed.
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