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Proof Positive: Russell Crowe plays an expert freelance hostage negotiator who proves to be a mercenary with a heart.

Bargaining Basement

Hostage action-drama 'Proof of Life' is barely alive

By Richard von Busack

SOME FILMS don't know where to end, but Proof of Life has the opposite problem: it doesn't know where to begin. It's a swollen movie, typical of Dreamworks' adventure films, in which finer feelings are considered more important than the action itself. Even with the tabloid talk of the possible affair between Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, there's no proof of smoldering interest between the leads here.

Strictly speaking, the title Proof of Life means the evidence which shows that kidnappers still have a live body in their custody. Unfortunately, the title also refers to the awakening of a mercenary as a human being, and how he becomes a kind of knight. Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) is a kidnapping and ransom specialist for a London-based insurance company. His newest assignment is to rescue a blameless oil company engineer (David Morse) kidnapped in a South American nation--plainly Colombia, though the film was made in Ecuador. Since the oil company didn't pay the bill on its kidnapping insurance, the rescue is terminated. The question--a pretty easy one--is whether Crowe will carry out the operation to help the engineer's wife, Alice (Meg Ryan), gratis.

Director Taylor Hackford stretches this matter out for hours as if the plot--as full of archetypes as a copy of The Hero With a 1000 Faces--wasn't easy to figure out. The guerrillas are Comanches, Crowe is the lone gunslinger, and Ryan is a woman who needs a real husband and a real child (she's still angry about a miscarriage.) Proof of Life's only real appeal is a raid on a guerrilla camp with helicopters and automatic rifles. And it takes such a generous amount of time to get to that raid that the impact of these scenes is lessened.

The casting is no relief: anyone could have played David Caruso's sidekick part. Though Morse throws off some sparks, he spends most of the film wounded and holed up in a hut. Pamela Reed, a deft comedienne of the 1980s, comes back in a thankless part as Morse's bitchy sister. In the lead, Ryan is throughly out of her customary shallows here. Although it's hinted that she's not supposed to be all that bright, the dialogue doesn't make her as fallible as the rest of us. (She's picked up some kind of world-weariness secondhand. "The places I've been ... Thailand, Africa ... such pain, y'know?") Really, the moral of Proof of Life is that pain is the inevitable lot of the Third World, and the only defense against involvement with that kind of suffering is our relationships to our husbands, wives and friends. Here, B-movie bravery and renunciation are turned into a moral lesson, but it's just a stuck brake slowing down the action.

Crowe, despite showing some proof of life in the last scene, is becoming like Richard Burton was. He's growing cooler, ever cooler; he's beginning to get contemptuous of the camera. On TV, Crowe, being asked those inane questions and receiving those brass-plated awards, is showing an understandably grouchy streak; he's becoming a star and he doesn't seem to care for the experience.

Proof of Life (R; 135 min.), directed by Taylor Hackford, written by Tony Gilroy, photographed by Slawomir Idziak and starring Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan and David Morse, plays countywide.

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From the December 13-20, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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