[Screen It]

(2000) (Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: An expert in hostage and ransom matters tries to bring a woman's kidnapped husband back home safely.
Peter Bowman (DAVID MORSE) is an American engineer working in a Latin American country building a dam with the help of Quad Carbon, an oil company wanting to run a pipeline through the country of Tecala. While Peter's busy at work, his wife Alice (MEG RYAN) isn't a happy camper. Not only does she have nothing to do in this, yet one more stop in yet another third world country, but also her marriage to Peter is strained, particularly after a recent miscarriage she had while in Africa.

Things get worse when an anti-government and drug harvesting terrorist group, the ELT, kidnaps Peter, believing him to be an important oil executive worthy of a hefty, multi-million dollar ransom. Unfortunately, he isn't, and to top off matters, it turns out that his company, that's going out of business, didn't insure him or his fellow workers against such developments.

With Peter's older sister, Janis Goodman (PAMELA REED) arriving in Tecala, Alice turns to professional kidnapping negotiator Terry Thorne (RUSSELL CROWE), who's just successfully retrieved another hostage from Chechnya. Unfortunately, his hands are tied by his superiors here who don't want him on a case that has no financial backing.

Despite that, Terry decides to take the case anyway, and with help of a fellow negotiator, Dino (DAVID CARUSO), he sets out to find out everything he can about Peter and prepare for his kidnappers' inevitable demands and ransom requests. While doing so, the kidnappers, including Juaco (PIETRO SIBILLE), the loose cannon of the bunch, move Peter further into the jungles where he eventually meets Eric Kessler (GOTTFRIED JOHN), a hostage who acts like a crazy man in order to survive what has become a nineteen month ordeal for him.

As the weeks wear on and Dino begins to suspect some possible romantic attraction between Terry and Alice, all of those involved do what they can to figure out where Peter's being held and then retrieve him as safely as possible.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
In director Taylor Hackford's latest picture, "Proof of Life," a professional kidnapping and ransom expert occasionally asks the film's kidnappers for some proof of life regarding the status of their hostage. If one were to apply that same litmus test to the film itself, a steady heartbeat would be found, but it would lack the strength and stamina needed for it to be considered a cinematic, Olympic champion.

That's despite an action-laced open and an action-filled close, with the latter suggesting that a defibrillator of sorts was taken to the proceedings to jump start the "patient" -- that had seemingly become somewhat comatose in the scenes lying between those action-oriented bookends - back to life.

Notwithstanding those moments, it's surprising that the film feels rather flat - if mostly competent - during most of its runtime of two plus hours. After all, the basic kidnapping element automatically introduces built-in drama and conflict - not to mention the usual psychological elements and escape attempts - and the film is set in some exotic looking locales.

Then there's the rumor/reporting of an off the set affair between the film's two leads which would make one assume some sparks would by flying in their scenes together. Unfortunately, the way in which Hackford ("The Devil's Advocate," "An Officer and a Gentleman") and screenwriter Tony Gilroy ("Bait," "The Devil's Advocate") have conceived and then executed the story robs the film of that extra oomph or spark necessary to make it stand out.

The results, while certainly easy enough to watch and sit through, consequently come off feeling like a bland and serious-minded James Bond flick wannabe, sans the fun or energy. The basic premise - based on William Prochnau's article, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade" that appeared in the May 1998 issue of Vanity Fair, and also inspired by "Long March to Freedom" by Thomas Hargrove - isn't half bad, and certainly provides the potential for a riveting cinematic experience.

With kidnappers abducting an engineer after mistaking him for an important and thus valuable oil executive, a desperate wife hiring a seasoned and proficient negotiator, and a possible romance then budding between them, all of the necessary elements would seem to be in place for a first-rate, dramatic thriller.

Yet, the kidnapping for profit angle is pretty much wasted. The kidnappers never transcend their barely developed, one-dimensional stereotypes and we don't get to know them and what makes them really tick or how they feel about what they're doing either as a group or as individuals. Only one is given much attention and that's only so that he'll later get his audience-pleasing comeuppance. Thus, that whole element - that could have added an extra layer of interest to the proceedings as has occurred in other hostage films -- is mostly squandered.

The same holds true for the chemistry - or lack thereof - between Russell Crowe ("Gladiator," "The Insider") and Meg Ryan ("Hanging Up," "City of Angels"). Notwithstanding rumors of the two's involvement off the set, they simply don't mesh that well together here, and while it's nice that the filmmakers avoided the usually obligatory sex scene, the chemistry between Crowe and Ryan's characters is rather flat and doesn't add as much complexity to the proceedings as one might imagine or expect.

Part of that stems from Ryan's interpretation of her character. While I've liked most of her previous efforts - even beyond the bubbly romantic comedy roles - she just doesn't feel right here. Her performance, while not of the wooden or fingernails down the chalkboard variety, doesn't come off as genuine.

One never truly believes her emotional duress, partly because of the way she plays the part, but also because an earlier scene of her with her husband that shows them in a less than positive light. As a result, we're never allowed to be as fully committed into hoping that they'll get back together again. That's a serious fault for a film whose success hinges a great deal on that.

Crowe, on the other hand, does a good job playing a man's kind of action hero man - mostly stoic, resourceful and able to turn into a commando when necessary - but could have benefited from a little more loosening up and/or comic relief. David Morse ("Dancer in the Dark," "The Green Mile") is also good as the hostage, but, like the film, is missing the extra spark necessary to grab the viewer.

One performer who does get into his role, however, is David Caruso ("Jade," "Kiss of Death"). While his is only a supporting performance, it seems that Caruso may have finally paid his penance for getting an inflated ego and jumping ship from TV's "NYPD Blue" before he was ready or had received some worthy movie scripts. Interestingly enough, the part of Terry would have been the type to go to Caruso back when he was the next hot thing, but he obviously has more fun - and is more entertaining to watch - in this role that allows him to be more flamboyant than the solemn and gritty protagonist.

Caruso's performance really comes to life - along with Crowe's and the rest of the picture - near the end when the mostly staid dramatics suddenly take an action film turn. While it's so reminiscent of 'Predator" that you'll half expect Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and a seven-foot tall alien hunter to show up and join the fray, Hackford and company more than competently handle the material.

Unfortunately, the film lacks that same amount of zing and energy elsewhere. Although that's not a debilitating problem, it certainly prevents the film from being as good as it could and should have been. Competent but lacking that extra something special to take it to the next level and make it more memorable, "Proof of Life" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2000 / Posted December 8, 2000

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