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Proof of Life

Starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe; David Morse, Pamela Reed
Screenplay by Tony Gilroy; Based on "Adventures in the Ransom Trade" by William Prochnau (Vanity Fair May 1998)
Directed by Taylor Hackford

IN SHORT: Slow paced but more than engaging kidnap thriller. [Rated R for violence, language and some drug material. 135 minutes]

The really good action thriller type movies are those in which, even if you accurately guess what's coming down the line -- it's called reading the foreshadowing, and is the curse of reviewers everywhere -- you don't mind if you called it correctly. The really great ones are those in which you don't leave your seat for a second, just in case everything is moving so well that you fear missing a hint. Proof of Life is the former. It moves just slowly enough that, as witnessed at the sneak preview we sat at, there was a steady stream of folk heading to get more popcorn.

Which is not a diss, though it is a bit of a shame. Proof of Life is director Taylor Hackford's best work in a while. His main characters, engineer Peter Bowman (David Morse) and his wife Annie (Meg Ryan) are established quickly and succinctly. Their marriage has hit a rough spot due a miscarriage almost a year earlier in yet another of the backwoods locations that Peter works in. Annie has always managed to find a way to settle in and work in places like Thailand and Africa, but she's had no such luck in the South American country of Tecala, where Peter is building a dam to control flooding in the country. In Tecala, there is an ongoing war against so-called "revolutionaries" who see the dam as as the first step to bring an oil pipeline through the poppy fields they control. When Peter is accidentally caught up in a revolutionary sweep -- they also run a side business in kidnapping -- he finds himself a political prisoner of war.

It isn't a "war," K&R (kidnap and ransom) expert negotiator Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) tells Annie. It's a business and, as with all businesses, there can be setbacks. There are negotiating organizations that work for the insurance companies, one of which employs Dino (David Caruso), who has been working to free a hostage nicknamed "The Italian," believed held by the same folk that hold Peter. In their small world, information sharing is a common practice, and that will become important as the story plays out, even after a number of barriers are placed in the story. Hey, a simple negotiation wouldn't be very interesting, would it? Tony Gilroy's script has got more than enough information to help us lock in to all the characters, which include good supporting roles for Pamela Reed as Peter's sister and Gottfried John as Eric the Loonie, another hostage whose feigned insanity gives him free run of the revolutionary camp.

It's been a number of years since we've had a movie with a kidnap scenario, so we'll mention Stockholm Syndrome again. That's the psychological term for a situation where a captive begins to sympathize with his captors. It's fairly common -- the Patty Hearst case is the most famous example -- and, as Proof of Life makes its merry way across the screen, it goes both ways. In the audience we sat with, the sympathy was definitely running in favor of David Morse's character.

We'll not tell you how or why. There's more than enough here to keep your attention and more than enough character development to make you react when the final act hits its climax. Prior to that finale, though, the slow pace is the only thing that gets in the way.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Proof of Life, he would have paid...


Dateflick level. In our crowd, the audience reaction was positive, if not cheerfully enthusiastic.

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