Given its pedigree, its potentially explosive subject matter, its exotic settings and the offscreen tryst between its charismatic stars that made celebrity-news headlines everywhere, "Proof of Life" should pack serious cinematic punch.
Director Taylor Hackford (a reliable helmsman of potboiler material ranging from 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman" to 1997's "The Devil's Advocate") and writer Tony Gilroy have built their movie on solid source material. Its screenplay was inspired by William Prochnau's provocative Vanity Fair article about the kidnap-and-ransom business, and by "Long March to Freedom," the autobiography of former hostage Thomas Hargrove.
Hackford and Gilroy's adventure thriller likewise benefits from an intriguing setup: While building a dam in the fictional South American country of Tecala, idealistic engineer Peter Bowman (David Morse) is grabbed by a guerrilla group that demands $3 million in exchange for his return. Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan), affectionately called "a little hippie" by her husband, is left behind to worry about Peter's safety and to lose sleep over the bitter argument -- an outgrowth of multiple, long-unresolved marital issues -- they fought the night before his disappearance. Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), a tough, ruggedly handsome kidnap-and-ransom expert from London, may or may not lend the expert assistance required by Alice and her sister-in-law, Janis (Pamela Reed), who have all but been abandoned by Peter's employer.
"Proof of Life" (which takes its name from the first demand made by those negotiating with kidnappers), is unfortunately bogged down by its allegiance to the demands of conventional structure. Terrific, often tense passages are built around Peter's relationship with his captors, and there's more drama in the efforts of Terry and his hotshot colleague, Dino (David Caruso, in a fine comeback), to facilitate a dramatic rescue operation. But those passages are followed by segments that star a worried but ever-glowing Alice. Ryan wears her Banana Republic-meets-thrift-store duds well; too bad her character isn't equipped with the sort of backstory that would have made her presence more than decorative.
Viewers lured by the backstage melodrama -- the juicy story of Ryan's decision to abandon husband Dennis Quaid in favor of a love connection with the fiercely talented, Australian-born Crowe-- will feel let down that a steamy love scene between the two was reportedly was left on the cutting-room floor. All that's left are suggestions of an affair: a series of flirtations, meaningful glances and sighs, and a single moment of physical contact. Any hint that these characters may be headed for heartbreak is difficult to discern. "Casablanca" it isn't.
Morse, so good in "Dancer in the Dark" and "The Green Mile," is the real find here. He's top-notch as a bland, rather average professional who's perceived as an ugly-American type by the Marxist-leaning guerrillas, but who calls on reserves of strength and ingenuity to survive his ordeal. For his part, Peter overcomes his initial state of shock to play a crafty game of good-prisoner, bad-prisoner with the stoned kidnappers. Those sequences lend credence to the theory that "Proof of Life" would have fared better without the damsel-in-distress element made necessary by Ryan's involvement.