Proof of Life

Directed by Taylor Hackford
Written by Tony Gilroy
Starring Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, David Morse


Proof of Life

I find it offensive, though maybe understandable, that mega-movies like "Proof of Life" come to us only after they've been cleansed of anything resembling real life and real people. 'Proof of Life' gives us by-the-numbers characters in a by-the-numbers plot; in fact it's so plot-driven that the people in it barely get a chance to squeeze into the movie, and when they do they're fighting clichés from a Screenwriting 101 class.

Here's the setup: American couple Peter and Alice Bowman -- David Morse and Meg Ryan -- are in the fictional South American country of Tecala -- a thinly disguised Ecuador -- where he's an engineer building a great dam for the people. Little does he know that his American oil company is using him and his project as a sop to environmentalists, while they -- you should probably say THEY -- just want oil and are building a pipeline that's going to destroy the native tribes' land. I should point out that Meg Ryan knows all this, so why Morse doesn't is something of a mystery, except that he's pretty clueless about a lot of things, including his wife.

However, off he goes into the mountainous jungle where -- uh-oh -- he's kidnapped by rebels, whom the script is careful to tell us are no longer the good guys but have lost all their ideals and are now just cocaine people.

Enter Russell Crowe as Terry Thorne, hostage negotiator, who I should tell you, before this film is over will actually wear a singlet that seems to have been left over from his wardrobe in 'Gladiator.' At any rate, here he comes, to save the day. He will negotiate with the rebels and get Peter back. But then, plot shift number two, Peter's company didn't pay the last premium on their kidnap insurance, and so Terry has to pack and go home to London, leaving poor Peter out there for good, and poor Alice -- well.... All of this is done by means of the most mechanical cross-cutting between Terry and Alice, on the one hand, and Peter and the rebels on the other. You know -- Day 3. Day 22. One problem with the sequences showing Peter as captive is that Morse is simply not a very interesting actor, and he can't make his pain and humiliation, which the film is careful to show us, into something that we care very much about. His fellow captive, the German Eric Kessler, played by Gottfried John, is infinitely more interesting and draws us into his situation much more believably.

In any case, something in Alice, and I won't say what, strikes a chord in Terry, and back he comes, on his own this time, to save the day again. Will he succeed? And will the screenwriter, Tony Gilroy, reach deep into his bag of clichés again and set up a final renunciation scene right out of everybody's favorite film Casablanca? It is shamelesss. I will say this -- like Paul Henreid in 'Casablanca,' 'Proof of Life' is the first movie in David Morse's career in which he ends up with the girl.

There is actually one very interesting and believable relationship in the film, and that is between Meg Ryan's character and that of her sister-in-law, Peter's sister Janis, played by Pamela Reed. The two start off as wary opponents with opposing ideas about how to deal with the kidnapping, and come to find great comfort and solace and strength in each other. It's the closest 'Proof of Life' comes to any kind of believability.

The film was directed by Taylor Hackford, whose career has been a very mixed bag, including 'An Officer and a Gentleman,' 'White Nights,' and 'Dolores Claiborne.' Here his action sequences seem taken from some other film, and his pacing is always a few seconds, sometimes even just a few frames, too slow. He should be leading us, and instead we wait for his movie to catch up.    

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