Photo by Ralph Nelson

Proof of Life, the new thriller with Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, is exactly the sort of good bad movie that Hollywood does best — it’s big, worthless fun. Directed by Taylor Hackford, whose last venture was the flamboyantly tacky The Devil’s Advocate, the film hinges on a couple of studiously serious issues, such as marriage ties that bind or maybe throttle, and the perils of being a First World capitalist tool in the muckiest of Third World trenches. There’s even a little something about the betrayal of revolutionary promise — the guerrillas in these mists don’t get high off Che anymore, but coca. Mainly, though, the movie is about the lubricated pleasures of exotic locales and muscled men blowing stuff up, about sleek industry craft, about Crowe’s undeniable screen presence and the way Ryan shines like a glowworm whenever he’s around. She can’t keep her eyes off him, and neither can we.

There’s a lot of plot in Tony Gilroy’s baggy screenplay, which was “inspired” by Thomas Hargrove’s Long March to Freedom, about his own kidnapping by Columbian terrorists, and by William Prochnau’s Vanity Fair article “Adventures in the Ransom Trade.” The reliable character actor David Morse, in the film’s most plaintively thankless role, plays Peter Bowman, an American engineer who’s been hired by an oil company to build a dam in the fictional Latin American country of Tecala (actually, it’s Ecuador). The dam is an exorbitant pretext for the oil company to put down a pipeline without interference or regulation, a fact that Bowman ignores
at the risk of both his conscience and his marriage to the more ethically certain
Alice (Ryan).

One day, while plowing through a
village in his convertible and barking into his cell phone (blink and you’d swear he was cruising down Mulholland), Bowman and a few dozen other unfortunates are snatched off the road by heavily armed insurgents. (The natives, predictably, divide between venal and hapless.) Deemed valuable prey, Bowman is held hostage for $3 million, which is where “kidnap and ransom” expert Terry Thorne (Crowe) comes in. Thorne is one of those blissfully nutty, contradictory figures that exist to stoke the audience’s libido as much as its interest — he’s not only a soulful black-bag operative in the employ of an insurance company, he’s Australian rough trade with a molten heart, a man’s man and woman’s man both. For all sorts of reasons that aren’t worth reciting, Thorne enters the fray, then leaves, only to return. While her husband is hustled through tropical dank, his hair and toenails growing alarmingly long, Thorne and Alice set about to save him, sometimes by candlelight.

Hackford has a proficient, anonymous Hollywood style — take his name off the credits and you’d be hard pressed to tell his work apart from that of the dozens of other professionals who put our stars through their paces. But he’s solid with actors, especially men, and in Proof of Life he elicits a superb performance from Crowe, and a very good one from David Caruso as another insurance commando. Crowe, who’s beefy here, almost soft, is
capable of surprising tenderness, and his Thorne has some of the same vulnerability Bud White had in L.A. Confidential. The actor is a master of wounded brutality, and at the end of Proof of Life, there’s a close-up of him that carries more emotional weight than anything else in the story. When Hackford keeps the camera on Crowe’s face without cutting away, it’s his finest bit of direction in the film. As for the rest of it, the most agreeable moments are when Crowe and Caruso are swapping wisecracks and world-weary glances like Bogart and Rains, or locking and loading before the
final shootout. The two have chemistry, though it’s nothing like what’s going on between the leads.

Ryan is a deft comic actor, but it’s increasingly rare that she’s called on to reach beyond the cute or the petulant or some noxious cocktail of the two. One of her finest recent performances was in the awkward romance Addicted to Love, where she waxed and waned between kooky and wistful, and every so often showed unexpected teeth. In Proof of Life, Ryan’s Alice goes from being her husband’s scold to being his freaked would-be savior. The actor sheds copious tears, stomps about in mighty big boots, clenching her jaw and tiny little fists with all the furious conviction of . . . Tinkerbell. Even when her eyes are ringed with red from bouts of crying, Ryan doesn’t look blitzed by fear, but by happiness — she’s dreamy, lit up. Given the story, it’s a pretty lousy performance, although more off-note than technically flawed. But given her widely reported affair with Crowe during the making of the film, as well as the subsequent demands of her own life, it’s also strangely poignant — she’s feeling something real, and it’s impossible not to notice.

The South Korean film Lies isn’t as formally slick as Proof of Life, but it’s
certainly well-lubed. Directed by Jang Sun Woo (the amusing title of his last feature, Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie, is appropriate for this one as well), the film is based on a novel by Jang Jung Il that was banned as pornographic and resulted in a jail term for its author. The story of a sadomasochistic affair between an 18-year-old high school student named Y (Kim Tae Yeon) and her baleful two-decades-older lover, J (Lee Sang Hyun), is at once aggressively dull and grimly entertaining, the sort of art-porn that succeeds in turning you off more than in turning you on. It’s also dramatically unpersuasive, silly, incoherent and, more than you can believe, pretty funny, at least at first — when the slight J, a toothpick-size stick figure, shows up clutching a huge metal suitcase crammed with whips and lashes, it’s a sight gag worthy of the early Woody Allen.

Since it hit the festival circuit last year, Lies has generated a certain amount of critical heat, though obviously more for its down-and-dirty subject than for its lurching form (which pretty much describes Y’s form, too). In essence, J and Y fuck, suck and flog their way through the days; eventually, the days turn into a year. If Lies were better, the most obvious point of reference would be In the Realm of the Senses, but the filmmaking isn’t good enough to warrant such comparison, and the ideas are half-baked. Jang clearly is after the sort of rapture that comes, as it were, with intense passion, and that can turn into its own sort of madness. (There’s some political subtext under all the humping,
but you have to look too hard to care.) The filmmaker is also interested in the blur between the real and the unreal,
including the lie of acting; ironically, it’s an interest that leads to the most arresting scene in the film. As one of Y’s friends beats her for a presumed betrayal, the actor playing Y breaks down in tears, piercing the film with emotion. That she’s wearing her clothes should be neither here nor there, but somehow is.

PROOF OF LIFE | Directed by TAYLOR HACKFORD Produced by HACKFORD and CHARLES MULVEHILL Written by TONY GILROY | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

LIES | Written and directed by JANG SUN WOO | Released by Cowboy Booking International At the Nuart

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