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Proof of Life (R)
Castle Rock Entertainment

Whenever I don't enjoy a movie I expected to like, I ask a simple question: Is this a movie I would want to see again? In the case of Proof of Life, the answer is no, definitely no.

Despite what should have been a compelling plot, based on an exciting premise and set in an exotic location, the movement in this film is slow, stumbling and repetitive -- until the last few minutes when an action rescue sequence ensues that's so exciting it feels as if it belongs to another movie altogether.

The fundamental problem is director Taylor Hackford's resolve to focus on the simmering romance between stars Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe instead of on the business at hand -- the kidnapping of an American executive (David Morse) in South America and the efforts by K&R (kidnap and ransom) experts (Crowe and David Caruso) to have him released.

Screenwriter Tony Gilroy borrowed his idea from a 1998 Vanity Fair article, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade," by William Prochnau, and the concept is, indeed, fascinating. Because there are so many multinational businessmen being abducted abroad, kidnapping has become a big business that has, in turn, spawned another business, the professional K&R industry, supported by corporate insurance policies and manned by former military operatives.

Peter Bowman (Morse), an American engineer, is unfortunate enough to be kidnapped at precisely the same moment his company is going bankrupt and has allowed its K&R insurance policy to lapse. Terry Thorne (Crowe), the K&R expert initially called in to negotiate Bowman's ransom, initially decides to drop the case, but is eventually dogged by his conscience and his attraction for Bowman's wife Alice (Ryan) into taking on the case, gratis.

From here, the film jumps back and forth between scenes of Bowman and his captors hiding out in the mountains, and scenes down below in the capital city where Terry and Alice struggle to negotiate a ransom and raise the necessary funds.

Hanky-panky between the negotiator and the bereaved wife is only hinted at, and Ryan and Crowe share just one brief kiss. But we are treated to endless sidelong glances and brushing back of hair off of foreheads, lingering looks, angry outbursts and an excruciatingly slow farewell scene that are supposed to signal their feelings. Surprisingly, the couple's screen chemistry is nonexistent and we simply want the camera to take us back to the action throughout most of the film's extended focus on their involvement.

Ryan is miscast here. Alice is supposed to be a hippie of sorts, a rebel, a firebrand who dislikes being a corporate wife and who has serious reservations about her and her husband's presence in the Third World. As played by Ryan, she comes across as a floundering, nervous, badly dressed waif who needs a good trip to the hairdresser. The role would have been better inhabited by, say, Nicole Kidman, or another actress of their general age group who can make an audience believe she has a serious social conscience and a backbone.

Crowe's best moments occur in the company of his macho compadre, fellow K&R expert Dino, played with flavor by David Caruso. And Morse gives an excellent performance as the kidnappee.

But what is worthwhile in Proof of Life -- the fabulous cinematography, a potentially intriguing and thrilling plot -- is lost in the film's refusal to just tell the story. We are dragged down again and again by superfluous characters, dangling subplots, weak characterizations and a fizzling, uninteresting romance.

Filmed in the mountains of Ecuador and the city of Quito by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (Blue, The Double Life of Veronique), Proof of Life is beautiful to look at but, in the end, like Ryan's mop of golden curls, it's an unruly mess. It's not a terrible film, just one that barely lingers in memory long enough to get you to the parking lot of the multiplex.

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