- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

2 and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Proof of Life"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence; sustained ominous elements; and some gruesome illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Taylor Hackford

RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes

''Proof of Life," a topical adventure thriller romanticized from factual accounts of terrorist kidnappings in South America, will reward the patient spectator.

Especially one who may not anticipate an admirably exciting action finale from a movie that seems to have been temporizing over issues of hostage negotiation and reluctant romance for an hour and a half.

But better a late-onset rouser than no rouser at all. The way "Proof of Life" kicks into high gear and justifies itself cinematically also has the belated virtue of demonstrating how superfluous the leading lady, Meg Ryan, has been to the scheme of things.

As Alice Bowman, the distraught wife of David Morse's Peter Bowman, an engineer taken captive by guerrilla mercenaries while supervising a dam construction project in the mythical country of Tecala (obviously suggestive of Colombia but doubled with often stunning scenic effect by Ecuador), Miss Ryan accentuates her most insufferable tendencies, summarized in a choked-up farewell line, "I've given you nothing."

A mawkish, bleary sort of nothing, at that. Still, to be fair, the self-criticism seems a trifle harsh. Miss Ryan's inimitably frazzled and simpery stupors promise abundant fuel for sarcasm. But could this particular movie do without her when the chips are down? You bet.

Although the project has added an unsavory glamour to Miss Ryan's name, courtesy of a clandestine love affair with leading man Russell Crowe, revealed in English tabloids while the picture was in production, the actress clearly is the most expendable of fictionalizing assets.

It comes as a great relief when director Taylor Hackford leaves Alice behind during the rescue mission.

I confess to a terrible premonition that some pretext or other would be cooked up to drag her along when Mr. Crowe and David Caruso recruit some trusted commando buddies and mop up on the scurvy band of narco-terrorists holding Bowman, a stout fellow in his own right. Mr. Crowe plays a resourceful troubleshooter for international insurance firms named Terry Thorne, and Mr. Caruso is an amusing, charged-up colleague called Dino.

At its most satisfying, "Proof of Life" is definitely a "guy flick." The only thing lacking is perhaps twice as many bad guys for Terry and Dino to neutralize, with extreme prejudice.

Given the intramural publicity surrounding the movie, it's possible that its actual merits will seem like a letdown to moviegoers who crave a screen confirmation of off-screen passion.

They won't get it. Alice and Terry, who decides to free-lance on her behalf after the company he works for discovers that the company Bowman works for let its insurance policy lapse on the eve of a merger deal, become kind of inseparable during four months of negotiations with an intermediary for the captors.

The attraction is always tentative and calculated, though, in the tradition of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca." That's not a bad tradition to share. Moreover, the customers have a certain advantage over the amorous co-stars. They can speculate about how much mutual affection is evident in the Ecuador scenes, where the liaison was heating up, and compare those impressions to the interiors shot in England, where the affair was a fait accompli.

Although Alice doesn't seem worthy of a chivalrous treasure like Terry, no one does, and it's easy to grow fond of Terry without Alice as a touchstone.

Indeed, some schools of thought might argue that Miss Ryan actually gets in the way of the audience's desire for big-time infatuation with such a strong and diffident chap.

The teamwork of Mr. Crowe and Mr. Caruso is so enjoyable that the idea of taking further interest in the rescue business Dino hopes to finance seems exceptionally attractive. Sounds like a swell investment to me. Gangway for Team Terry & Dino.

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