. "Proof of Life"

The title of this film refers to the evidence a kidnapper provides those who would pay ransom that their victim is still breathing so that negotiations for payment can proceed. Here, the evidence is a Polaroid shot of the victim with a current newspaper. The place is the fictitious Latin American country Tecala (Ecuador served as the film location), which has been hounded by a guerrilla army that's very annoyed by the pipeline being laid by the American conglomerate, Quad, through their illicite coca fields.

To divert the Tecalans from the purely monetary purposes of the pipeline, Quad has reluctantly and, somewhat cynically, hired engineer Peter Bowman (David Morse) to build a dam that will benefit the country. Little do they appreciate that his dedication to the project comes way before his interest in being a corporate team player. He's only interested in providing the good his dam will do. This plays into the irony of his being captured and becoming the ransomee.

But not before it's established that he and his wife Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan) have marital problems, not the least of which stems from the death of a daughter in childbirth when they were on a project in Africa. In an overextended scene between the married couple, we see the friction and strains his lifestyle imposes on them.

Everything changes when he's captured. Quad hires the legendary Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) a K&R expert ("Kidnap and Ransom") whose exploits and skills are amply demonstrated in a smash introductory sequence in the style of the Bond movies. There's no doubt that this is the guy you want in such a situation and, soon, he's briefing Alice and her visiting sister Janis (Pamela Reed) on what to expect in the ransom procedures. She's terrified for her husband but fascinated by her new ally whom she can barely keep her eyes off. But, can she trust him?

This, too, becomes moot when Quad learns that there's no insurance on engineer Peter, so they can't afford Thorne. To Alice's shock and dismay, Thorne, like a good soldier, leaves and returns to his ransom insurance company. But, like a bad soldier, he returns to complete the mission even if it means he won't get paid. He, apparently, can't get Alice out of his mind.

The ransom negotiations proceed, but go awry because of political exigencies and a rescue operation becomes the only possible resolution. Thorne allies with Dino, a fellow insurance commando (a well-chosen David Caruso) and an extraction team. What follows are guerilla war sequences that are brilliantly and convincingly staged by the director, Taylor Hackford ("The Devil's Advocate", 1997; "When We Were Kings", 1996), who went to well-deserved pains to keep all the relationships clear and maximized. He based it on a fine script, melding the personal and emotional backdrop for the action that gives it meaning, by a former collaborator, Tony Gilroy ("Armageddon", 1998; "The Devil's Advocate", 1997).

The chemistry between Thorne and Alice flourishes in this environment of high drama and risk and no less does the bonding between the male action heroes. Their skills mesh well and suggest they've seen this kind of action through to successful conclusions more than once in their careers. David Morse's physical and acting skills prove another good choice as he portrays the fears and challenges of a captive in jungle imprisonment.

In all it's a satisfying excursion on this third-world turf in which an American's life may be bartered. It provides for plenty of intrigue and action, fine characterizations by the rebel commandos as well as by the good guys, clear political and monetary stakes and, IRL (In Real Life), a true romance that sprung out of the working relationship between the two leading stars. Yes, Crowe and Ryan are an item in Hollywood. Their set-side romance may have influenced their performances, but it wasn't a diminishing effect.

And Crowe continues to threaten the legacy of Schwarznegger and Stallone by jumping into their able boots and, film by film, becoming the action hero of the new millennium. Believe it. You heard it here.

Estimated cost: $65,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $30,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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