& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

This exciting, intense, often horrifying and all too real thriller about a South American terrorist kidnapping of an American was at one point supposed to be titillating to viewers because its two stars -- Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan -- ran off with each other in real life after filming was completed.

But that kind of publicity bonus is just not needed when a film is made with so much muscle, so much nerve-wracking wallop. And it doesn't hurt that both Crowe (on his continuing way to superstardom) and Ryan (not a favorite of mine) are both terrific here. Actually, in a film that's filled with small parts around these two major ones, practically every single actor gives his or her all, and scores. The only actor who surprisingly doesn't hit the mark is Pamela Reed, who plays Ryan's sister-in-law, and overdoes it in areas of facial reactions to the point where she just sticks out too much.

But getting past her, it's very hard to find fault with anything else. Crowe's character, Terry Thorne -- an international hostage negotiator who works in the Kidnap and Ransom Unit -- is introduced in a visually washed-out, action-packed segment that shows the dangers of what he does for a living. Back at the British company he works for, it's explained that the hostage rescue business is just that -- nothing more than a business.

Meanwhile, the seemingly happy American couple of Peter and Alice Bowman (David Morse and Ryan) are living in the fictional South American country of Tecala. Filmed in Ecuador, Tecala is where he's stationed as an engineer to build a dam that will improve life for the locals, but is also an object of political hatred for a local terrorist group. In a wrong place/wrong time situation, he's captured by guerillas, blindfolded and brought deep into the jungle, while she's left at home to figure out what to do about it.

Before long, it's Thorne to the rescue, assuring the distraught Mrs. Bowman that he knows what he's doing -- explaining in detail how kidnap negotiations work -- then trying to win over the trust of both her and her recently arrived sister-in-law.

And again, before long, the film switches into high gear, smoothly and repeatedly jumping back and forth between Peter and his roughneck captors, and Terry trying to set up deals with an anonymous voice on a two-way radio while keeping the peace in Alice's home. Director Taylor Hackford (Dolores Claiborne, An Officer and a Gentleman) maintains solid control of what could have been a dizzying ordeal to watch. And his direction of actors is as successful as his choices of where to place cameras and when to juxtapose action with quiet moments.

Crowe has displayed amazing range in the varying roles he's taken in different movies in recent years. Even after seeing his dead-eyed, thuggish performance in L.A. Confidential, his light and funny one in The Sum of Us, and his gritty one in Gladiator, and realizing how well he does it all, it's still quite an accomplishment for him to go from confused, loving father to action hero to calm and collected "businessman" in one film -- this one.

And Ryan, in the film's most difficult role, brings her character through a tremendous amount of emotional upheaval, sometimes strong and ready to do what she must to get her husband back, sometimes with tears welling up in her eyes, but managing to stay just on this side of hysteria. The part is a real challenge, and she meets every aspect of it.

Morse doesn't get as much screen time as his co-stars, but remains one of the more powerful actors in Hollywood. He, too, fabulously stretches across a wide range for his character, haplessly being bullied about by the bad guys, standing up strong in the face of an automatic gun (a really chilling scene) when he thinks he has the emotional upper hand over one of his captors.

But back to the real-life Ryan/Crowe thing. Without giving much away here, the film's time span goes on for something like four months, during which their two characters spend a great deal of time together -- her worrying, him working. And the film hints that the situation is drawing them closer together. Quite a bit of this part is going to be open for interpretation by different viewers. Is something really happening between them? Does something only seem to be happening? That will not be given away here. But just the idea of it definitely adds a whole other dimension to the goings-on.

Before too much thought can be spent on that part of the story, though, the film again switches gears and turns from nervous negotiations to nail-biting action. The strange ending, that half the audience will call upbeat and the other half will label downbeat, accompanied by Van Morrison singing the haunting "I'll Be Your Lover, Too," is near perfect.

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