In Proof of Life, Meg Ryan plays Alice Bowman, who is stationed with her husband, Peter (David Morse), in a nervous Latin American country. He’s an American engineer working on a dam-building project; she’s what Peter affectionately but pointedly calls a ”little hippie.” His point seems to be that while Alice is too much of a free spirit to bother learning Spanish, she’s a whiz at accessorizing with a studied pizzazz that doesn’t generally suit company wives but nicely suits the current version of Ryan’s trendsetting tresses. But I digress: Peter soon gets kidnapped and held for a $3 million ransom by antigovernment forces who regularly barter human lives for cold cash.
That’s when Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) appears. He’s a professional ”K&R” (kidnap and ransom) negotiator, one of a new breed of global-economy cowboys routinely brought in by a company’s insurer to deal with rustlers. Terry is gifted with Crowe’s palpable physical presence and stubbly virility, and, in the movie’s slack shorthand characterization-by-wardrobe, he’s a serious person, anti-pizzazz. He’s brusque, commanding, and so immune to workaday emotional entanglements that he drops the job when he learns that Peter’s company, on the verge of bankruptcy, has canceled its kidnap insurance.
Then he reappears, either drawn by heretofore hidden reserves of moral goodness or by the charms of Alice’s winsome smile, her tousled head, her cunning tank tops. And quicker than you can say Casablanca, the tough guy with the ”I stick my neck out for no one” attitude assumes the assignment of extricating Peter on his own, assisted by a mate called Dino (David Caruso) with a similar addiction to high-risk thrills.
The movie’s title is taken from the first demand of all K&R pros — proof that the hostage is still alive; the plot is inspired by William Prochnau’s 1998 Vanity Fair article about the K&R industry, blended with aspects of an autobiography by Thomas Hargrove, a kidnapping survivor. And, indeed, throughout Proof of Life, director Taylor Hackford strews pieces of a decent, jittery, documentary-style adventure pic about what it takes to make it out alive, for the captive as well as for his rescuers and family.
Morse undergoes a shocking, Tom Hanks-like physical transformation, but even more effectively, the fine character actor unobtrusively conveys the psychological shifts needed for a chained man in the jungle to survive. A welcome sight on screen again, Caruso, as Dino, lopes with mad-dog mercenary excitement at the chance to play superhero once more with his old pal Terry; the two are Louie and Rick, bound in a beautiful friendship of swagger. ”That was fun,” Dino comments to his buddy after a particularly dangerous bit of daring. The other man’s acknowledgment is just a little less perceptible than the nod with which Rick gave leave for the band at his bar to play ”La Marseillaise.”
A nod goes a long way with Crowe, as charismatic an untamable guy’s guy as we’ve got among movie stars today. And that magnetism is useful in aligning Ryan with the rest of the company in this production: His star power, big and self-assured, calms her tendency toward actressy heebie-jeebies, and in his presence she appears to relax a little more and listen a little better. (Can’t think where I read it, something about a romance between the two?)
But a focal tug-of-war occurs every time the movie shifts to Alice, even if it’s just for a one-shot of the actress, looking fetchingly soulful. Ryan is a performer who needs her own key light — it’s silly to fight it, far better just to give it to her and let her glow. Proof of Life, however, shouldn’t be a movie about key lighting, or wardrobe, or whether Alice, in a strained, sentimental back story, is mourning a miscarriage that occurred eight months ago. (Terry, too, is sentimentalized in a distracting subplot involving estrangement from his son, whom he visits on the rugby field of the boy’s English boarding school.)
Proof of Life, when it breathes, is about guys in love with the thrill of running around outwitting other guys, then getting together afterward to slap each other on the back, aroused by danger. Sometimes the life-and-death game involves guns, sometimes wads of cash; usually the deal involves subterfuge and silent, SWAT-team-style watch me hand gestures. But when it’s dull, which it is too often for a kidnap caper, this movie is about a woman chirping ”notice anything new about my outfit?” to a man whose idea of style is a jacket not crusted in human blood. C+