Burden of 'Proof'
New thriller is actually thrilling
By Rhonda Reeves

Sally and the gladiator living it up in Chechnya

Proof of Life opens with guns blazing - literally - as Russell Crowe narrates a recent K&R (kidnap and rescue) mission in Chechnya for the benefit of his bosses.

The footage of his "outcome positive" escapade unfolds dramatically in an action sequence that's sure to occupy the wet dreams of Jerry Bruckheimer and Dick Donner for the rest of the holiday season. Complete with a bait and switch, a helicopter under fire, with Crowe hanging onto its ledge, it's easily worthy of the train derailing scene at the beginning of The Fugitive.

That said, most moviegoers will show up to see how the onscreen relationship between Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan plays itself out. Were they or weren't they? Are they or aren't they? And the answer is: who cares? As actors, they do a convincing job of conveying conflict and chemistry and that's their job. (Any prurient viewers interested in the "legitimacy" of it ought to remind themselves that Rock Hudson seemed to be perfectly believably in love with Doris Day onscreen for years. And as filmgoers, that's all we have a right to expect.) On with the show.

Meg Ryan plays Alice, a "corporate" wife to David Morse (recently in Dancer in the Dark), an engineer who's trying to build a dam. He thinks he's there to stop flooding and help the people, but in reality, he's just a foil for Octonal, the oil company who's there to build a pricey yet exploitative pipeline. He's "humanitarian window dressing" on a "charity project," according to one of his colleagues.

He's pretty adept at kidding himself though, as he gets tough with Alice in an early scene about what they're enduring to be there, "This isn't just a job; it's everything I've worked for my entire life."

We learn a few things about them in their early scenes together. She's unhappy in the third world. She'd like to be back home in the U.S. They're both something of hippie idealists. And their marriage already has at least one tragedy to its credit, in Africa.

It all becomes rather quickly moot when he is dramatically and violently taken hostage (given away in all the trailers). The kidnappers see his corporate I.D. and instantly mistake him for a cash cow. And the rest of the movie is about getting him back safely.

Enter Crowe. Kidnap and Ransom specialist. Former British soldier. He shows up and seems so thoroughly capable, in control, and expert, that it appears it might be a very short movie. He explains the negotiation process to Alice and her sister-in-law, and they grow cautiously optimistic.

Then it turns out Morse's bosses (contractors, a rung down from the nefarious Octonal) are going bellyup, and somebody forgot to pay the Kidnap and Ransom insurance premiums (actually, a giant industry).

According to the 1998 Vanity Fair article that inspired the movie, "over the past 20 years, multinationals have quietly paid out at least a billion dollars in ransom for kidnapped executives." William Prochnau's article describes "London's Control Risk Group, Ltd., the oldest and most regal of K&R firms, with a client list that includes 91 Fortune 100 companies, 9 of the top 10 Forbes multi-nationals, and a top-secret list of rich and famous people... When a phone rings at 83 Victoria Street, the response is guaranteed: you will, within 15 minutes, get a call back from a seasoned negotiator; you will have him at your side, anywhere in the world, within 24 hours. He will spend the next two years of his life with you, if that's what it takes - and sometimes it does."

In the Vanity Fair article, Tom Hargrove's bosses, CIAT, were insured - they just elected to try to appeal to the guerillas' "better instincts," given that Hargrove was engaged in humanitarian work. (His wife Susan ultimately fought for the K&R negotiators who succeeded in securing his release.)

But in the movie, the Bowmans are uninsured, and no one at Crowe's agency wants to get on the bad side of their biggest petroleum client. Exit Crowe. Leaving Peter's fate in the hands of the paid-off, corrupt-to-incompetent locals.

...Of course he comes back. It's a movie.

He enlists the aid of a buddy (and friendly competitor), David Caruso - who finally gets a chance to show off why he left NYPD Blue - and the two of them quickly enter the "Rescue" phase of "Kidnap and Rescue," after all other means have been exhausted.

This is where the movie succeeds best - on action and strategy turf. The testosterone-infused military nature of the mission fires on all cylinders, even including moments of comic relief punctuating the high tension. The more emotional scenes between Crowe and Ryan also work - though not on the level that audiences probably will expect. There is no real relationship between the two characters - mostly unrealized tension. As Caruso points out to his pal, there really IS no possibility of some romantic happy ending here. And the movie is smart enough not to try for one.

Ryan seems relieved to be out from under the crushing mantle of being America's sweetheart, free to do some emoting beyond just perky. As is usually the case when directors want to signify that her character is deep, as opposed to cute, she is given cigarettes to smoke, alcohol to drink, and a suitably hippie wardrobe that largely relies on men's white tank t-shirts (see also: When a Man Loves a Woman).

The movie does an excellent job of reflecting the spirit and the intent that infused Prochnau's May 1998 magazine article. It points out that the kidnappers "started out as revolutionaries... then came in hard and fast and took over the drug trade."

In the movie, as in the article, it's now about the money. It's always about the money. (In the case of the missionary organization cited in the article, for example, which adopts a variation of the U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorists - choosing to rely on faith instead - two of their kidnapped missionaries are dead, and three were missing at the time the article was printed.)

As one ex-kidnapper tells the journalist at the end of the article, "Don't romanticize it. There was never anything romantic about it."

Amazingly, director Taylor Hackford seems to have taken his advice to heart. Thank God Bruckheimer and Donner never optioned the rights to this compelling story.