Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan) moves to the (fictional) South American country of Tecala because her engineer husband, Peter Bowman (David Morse), has been hired to help build a new dam for oil company Quad Carbon. While driving one morning through the city, Peter is caught in traffic and then ambushed and abducted by guerrilla rebels of the Liberation Army of Tecala (ELT). Believing that Peter is working on Quad Carbon’s oil pipeline, ELT soldiers lead him through the jungle.
Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), a former member of the British Special Air Service, arrives in Tecala fresh from a successful hostage rescue in Chechnya. As an expert negotiator in kidnapping-and-ransom cases, he is assigned by his company, Luthan Risk, to bargain for Peter’s safe return. Unfortunately, it is learned that Quad Carbon is on the verge of bankruptcy and takeover, and therefore has no insurance coverage for kidnapping, so they cannot afford Thorne’s services. Despite Alice’s pleas to stay, Thorne leaves the country. Alice is then assigned a corrupt local hostage negotiator, who immediately urges her to pay the ELT’s first ransom demand: a $50,000 “good faith” payment. Not knowing what to do, Alice agrees, but the transaction is stopped by Thorne who (due to his conscience) has returned to help. He is aided by Dino (David Caruso), a competing negotiator and ex–Green Beret.
Over the next few months, Thorne uses a radio to speak with an ELT contact, and the two argue over terms for Peter’s release—including a ransom payment that Alice can afford. Thorne and Alice bond through the ordeal, and become intimate. They eventually negotiate a sum of $650,000.
Meanwhile, Peter has become a prisoner at the ELT’s jungle base camp. There, he befriends another hostage named Kessler (Gottfried John)—a missionary and former member of the French Foreign Legion—who has lived in the camp for nineteen months. The two concoct an escape plan, but during their attempt they are quickly tracked by the ELT. Kessler falls into a river after being shot in the shoulder and manages to escape, but Peter steps on a trap and is recaptured. Kessler is found and hospitalized. Thorne’s ELT contact subsequently refuses to respond to his calls. Luckily, one of Alice’s young maids recognized his voice over the radio and reveals he is a government official. Thorne goes to a parade ceremony and confronts the contact; he confirms that Peter is alive, but because of the ELT’s escalating war with the government and Peter’s knowledge of the terrain, the ELT will no longer negotiate.
At Thorne’s urging, Alice and Kessler convince the Tecala government that the ELT is mounting an attack on the pipeline being built through their territory. This forces the government army to mobilize, thus forcing a bulk of the camp’s ELT troops to mobilize for a counter-attack. Thorne, Dino, and several associates are then inserted by helicopter and raid the weakened ELT base. They overcome the camp’s soldiers, free Peter and another hostage, and then fly back to the city, where Alice happily reunites with her husband. Thorne and Alice share a final intimate moment before the latter departs with Peter on an immediate flight to the U.S.