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Exotic locales, combustible stars and a kidnap/ransom story line can't hide this thriller's overwrought "Casablanca" roots.

Burden of 'Proof'

Taylor Hackford's "Proof of Life" starts off as a psychological drama, taking us into the high-stakes world of international kidnaps-for-ransom. We watch as lives are torn apart, minds are warped and odd relationships — both emotional and financial — are forged out of necessity. Then the movie shifts focus, and we find ourselves in far too familiar territory: a sincere idealist, his conflicted wife and the rugged adventurer who can save a life only by breaking a heart. While "Proof of Life" stars Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan are talented and engaging actors, they just aren't Bogart and Bergman. And in light of all the press generated about the couple falling in love during filming — even to the point of Ryan leaving hubby, Dennis Quaid, for co-star Crowe — one would think their on-screen chemistry would ignite the screen. Think again. These two would need a Bunsen burner to create a spark. When "Proof of Life" remains in its psychodrama mode, the lack of chemistry isn't an issue. Crowe is quite believable as thinking man's commando Terry Thorne. A former SAS officer (the British equivalent of the Green Berets/Navy SEALs rolled into one), Thorne now works for a company specializing in negotiating, ransoming and rescuing businessmen held hostage by international terrorists. Ryan is Alice Burman, the wife of an engineer who's kidnapped by South American guerrillas. As she proved in "Hurlyburly" and "Courage Under Fire," Ryan is more than capable of handling an intensely dramatic role. She shines in the movie's first big set piece, a prolonged argument with her husband, Peter (David Morse), where the two squabble about career frustrations, money and kids. All talk and little action, Ryan and Morse hold our attention by being real. He's had a bad day at work; she's not sympathetic enough. He's about to uproot them for the jungles of South America; she's still recovering from a miscarriage in Africa, his last posting. The tension between the two escalates like dangerous tango. Soon after, Peter is kidnapped and Terry Thorne becomes the center of Alice's life. Full of conflicted feelings and guilt, Alice will do anything to bring Peter back home. Then the rescue hits a snag, Peter's bosses decide they can't set a precedent by paying the $3 million ransom. Without corporate backing or insurance, Alice is left in the lurch. Terry certainly isn't going to do the job free. Or is he? Ryan's scenes with Morse are involving; Crowe's scenes with his second-in-command Dino (David Caruso) are equally terrific. But Crowe and Ryan together are deathly. She seems bland and unconvincing; he appears largely emotionless. Both Morse and Caruso seize every opportunity to steal Crowe and Ryan's thunder. In truth, Morse's scenes in the guerrilla camp interacting with the Marxist leaders and a demented fellow kidnap victim are far more compelling than watching Ryan and Crowe fight the feeling. Even if they do so against the exquisitely shot background courtesy of Slawomir Idziak. The veteran Polish cinematographer, best-known for his work with the late filmmaker Krysztof Kieslowski, fills the movie with his trademark odd angles, filters and unusual shots. Those waiting for the gunfire to begin in "Proof of Life" may find themselves losing patience. When it comes, though, it's worth the wait. Far more worth the wait in fact, than the "Casablanca"-esque denouement. But the movie's gritty guerrilla-style action, insider's look at the business of kidnapping and terrific cinematography don't amount to a hill of beans in this world if a romantic thriller's lovers don't make us believe.

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