Put out of your head the truly awful trailers and the even worse TV commercials that make "Proof of Life" look like some kind of action-amour hybrid. Forget all the rumors about an ill-advised romantic subplot in the movie (there isn't one) and on the set (no comment!). Thanks to the solid work of journeyman director Taylor Hackford, "Proof" is a bona fide Third World thriller that deserves to be seen without all the prejudicial baggage and BS that has swirled around the movie for the last few months.
Fresh from becoming a bankable star thanks to "Gladiator," Russell Crowe stars as a desensitized yet sympathetic kidnap-and-rescue specialist ("KNR" in the trade jargon) dispatched to an unnamed Central American country to negotiate for the return of an American hydroelectric engineer (David Morse). The man has been abducted by drug-running rebels looking to score a big ransom from his oil conglomerate employer.
Meg Ryan plays Morse's distraught wife who grows to trust this brusque KNR man just as the oil company tries to weasel out of its responsibility, dismissing Crowe's high-rent expert and bringing in a crooked, inexperienced local yokel instead.
But for the first time in his life (apparently) Crowe's conscience -- and Ryan's tenacity -- gets the better of him and he decides to secure Morse's return with or without company backing. Thus begins a lengthy game of who-will-blink-first negotiation that tries Ryan's nerves despite assurances that the threats, disquieting prisoner photos and outrageous demands are standard bargaining procedure.
Deftly weaved into this home front story is the parallel plot which finds an increasingly scruffy Morse marched to a bemired hideout deep in the mountainous jungle for six inhumane months as a prisoner.
Inspired by a 1998 Vanity Fair article about real KNR operatives, "Proof" portrays an authentic sense of the danger inherent in this part of the world. The fear and anxiety of a kidnap victim's family comes through distinctly, as does the unshakability of the kind of people who stare down kidnappers for a living.
Crowe does a good job coloring in the mettle of his generically strong and silent type, even though it's clear he isn't adequately challenged by the role. But it's the fact that Hackford's direction consistently rises above such script shortcomings (much like Steven Soderbergh's did with "Erin Brockovich") that makes this film so watchable. In the wrong hands, "Proof" could have become a movie of the week or a B-grade action loser with, say, Dolph Lungren in the lead. While Hackford does stick to the Hollywood straight and narrow, he never allows the movie to become trite.
Employing a hearty helping of plot decoys and small but significant twists, the director enfolds the audience in this Cliffs Notes version of what it's like to be a terrorist's prisoner or a kidnap victim's wife who can't pay the ransom.
The characters' backstories feel manufactured (Morse is a quality-of-life missionary, Ryan is a little fed up with being dragged around the world). But Ryan's performance is fittingly anxious and easy to connect with, and Morse's is powerful and tense. He projects onto the audience what it is to cling to life and hope -- and to dreams of escape -- while being hungry, unshaven and unbathed for months on end, housed in a hut on a muddy hillside, surrounded by chaotic, desperate guerrillas with machine guns and itchy trigger fingers.
The element of peril is constant throughout the movie and when negotiations collapse, it leads quite naturally into a clutching rescue attempt that recalls the finale of "Clear and Present Danger" with Crowe leading trained mercenaries on an assault once they discover the location of the jungle encampment.
Hackford ("The Devil's Advocate") doesn't dodge all the script's cliché landmines and the movie could use a few nips and tucks (135 minutes could have been 115 easily). But "Proof of Life" is so skillfully executed (editing, photography and other technical aspects are irreproachable) that forgiving a few pitfalls to become thoroughly engrossed doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice.