Proof of Life

Russell Crowe gained notoriety for his nuanced turn in last year’s “The Insider,” then got the accompanying popular vote as an action star — something no one thought he would ever be — in this year’s “Gladiator.” His latest, “Proof of Life,” shows more of his range, mixing the best elements of both previous characters: Here’s a butt-kicking action star who’s also calm, cool and dignified.

Crowe plays Terry Thorne, an Australian native who was once a British soldier but now works for an organization that negotiates for hostages and kidnapping victims. This profession has consumed his life, at the expense of his family.

He’s called into action when Peter Bowman (David Morse) is kidnapped by rebel mercenaries in the fictitious South American nation of Tecala. (What, they couldn’t think of a REAL South American country with an unstable government and drug-trafficking guerrillas? Or were they afraid Colombia would sue them for defamation?) Peter was really just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he turns out to be valuable: He’s an engineer working on a dam that would help an American oil company build a pipeline, which the terrorists are opposed to — once because it went against their politics, but now because it would disrupt their cocaine crop.

Peter’s wife, Alice (Meg Ryan) is left to sit and worry back at the hacienda with Peter’s sister, Janis (Pamela Reed). When Peter’s company goes belly-up at the most inopportune of moments (just as Peter is kidnapped) and therefore won’t be using any insurance money to help with the ransom, Terry steps in to help out on a free-lance basis.

The trailer hints at a reason for Terry’s generosity that would complicate matters considerably, but not only does this element not develop until the film is well more than half-over, but it turns out not to be a sizable factor anyway — which makes the trailer rather deceptive, in my opinion. The emphasis really is on the negotiations for Peter, and only slightly on Terry’s personal motives and home life.

David Morse is an enormously sympathetic actor who makes Peter into more than a hapless victim. Peter is brave and noble even under the most adverse of circumstances; many actors would let him just sit in the guerrilla camp and become bearded, but Morse keeps the fire burning.

Meg Ryan, who should be prohibited from saying the F-word as much as she does in this movie, uses a husky voice and smokes a lot to remove the patina of innocence that usually radiates from her perky little face, but it is to little avail. Her character is not required to do anything more than sit at home and look worried. If Alice develops an attachment to Terry Thorne, it hardly shows.

Director Taylor Hackford keeps things moving at a brisk pace, resulting in a film that, despite being more than 2 hours in length, maintains a level of interest and excitement throughout. Much of that can be ascribed to Crowe’s magnetism, but credit also goes to the action sequences, which, though few in number, are extremely satisfying. And underneath them is a film with unexpected layers and resonance.

B+ (; R, abundant harsh profanity, abundant shooting and other terrorist violence and some gore.)