Hostage Heat

Taylor Hackford's thriller "Proof of Life" leaves a lot to be desired, but it's got its hands on a fascinating subject. Inspired by a Vanity Fair article by William Prochnau and a book by former hostage victim Thomas R. Hargrove, it gives us a peek into the world of K&R (kidnap and ransom). As organized kidnapping has become a big business, it has given rise to K&R insurance policies, routinely taken out by multinational corporations on behalf of their endangered employees. The insurance companies in turn employ profession- al negotiators--many of whom are former CIA, FBI or Interpol agents--to bargain for the lives of the hostages spirited off by mercenary rebel forces.

That's the job of London-based Aussie Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), a former soldier with a calm, cool bedside manner. In "Proof of Life" Thorne finds himself holding the hand of Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan), whose engineer husband, Peter (David Morse), has been abducted by drug-running guerrillas in the fictitious South American country of Tecala. Making matters worse for Peter, his failing company has canceled its insurance policy. Thorne, who prides himself on his strictly-business professionalism, at first turns his back on the job, but we know better. We also know, this being a Hollywood movie, that his emotional detachment will be compromised by his growing attachment to his attractive client.

To be fair, Tony Gilroy's screenplay keeps the romance on the back burner. The focus alternates between the captive's ordeal in the mountains (the gorgeous locations are actually Ecuador), where he is at the mercy of young, trigger-happy rebels, and Thorne's attempts to bring the $3 million demand down to a manageable 600 grand.

Thorne is the most compelling aspect of "Proof of Life," thanks to Crowe's quiet, hard-bitten charisma. It's a part Bogart once would have played--the amoral tough guy who rises to the moral occasion--and Crowe gives it just the right note of gravel-voiced masculinity.

But neither Crowe, Ryan nor the topical subject keeps "Proof of Life" from feeling recycled. For all the up-to-the-minute research, the movie still gives off the musty scent of Hollywood contrivance. Haven't we seen these stereotypical wild-eyed guerrillas and shifty-eyed corporate types a hundred times before? Instead of maximizing the tale's urgency, the melodramatic flourishes just make it seem more generic. The wonderful Pamela Reed injects a splash of spiky, unexpected feeling as Peter's busybody sister; you wish there were more moments when somebody made a move you couldn't second-guess. This slick, handsomely produced thriller only gets the pulse half racing. D.A.