It’s hard to think about Proof of Life in any context outside the much-publicized, marriage-busting love affair that developed between its stars, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. But it’s probably just as well, since, aside from this conflagrationary event, Proof of Life is strictly dullsville—a lackluster thriller and inept romance, directed with remarkable lack of imagination by Taylor Hackford. Without the gossip attached, the film might not garner much interest at all.
This is too bad, because the film’s premise is reasonably compelling. Based on a 1998 Vanity Fair article called “Adventures in the Ransom Trade,” by William Prochnau, the film purports to look at the increasingly widespread phenomenon of kidnapping as a business, such that kidnappers seize victims with the specific idea of holding them for money from wealthy companies that send their engineers and executives to faraway, “third world” (code for “uncivilized” compared to the U.S.) places to plunder natural resources. The film opens with just such a scenario: K&R (Kidnap & Ransom) professional Terry Thorne (Crowe) is saving a kidnappee held by Chechens and wanted by Russians (all parties except Terry being unscrupulous buggers, of course). Terry works for a super-swank, London-based insurance company. Under his own confident, jargony voice-over he’s reporting the successful “extraction” to his employers after the fact, so suspense is minimal you watch Terry enact all sorts of extraordinary derring-do he’s shooting and dodging, running and leaping over bad guys, and eventually, hanging off a helicopter while it ascends to the sky, under fire, of course.
This frantic James-Bondish opening sequence establishes Terry as the most heroic and worthy of chaps. So it’s no surprise that he’s called in to handle the kidnapping of one Peter Bowman (David Morse), a well-intentioned engineer working on a dam in the fictional South American country, Tecala (let’s say this upfront it’s fictional because the film portrays the natives so badly). One morning Peter’s on way to work, following a fight with his wife Alice (Meg Ryan), when he runs smack into a roadblock. Suddenly, along with other innocents who appear to be natives of Tecala, the white man is picked up by a crew of uniformed and gun-toting guerillas (members of a well-known and apparently generic “Liberation Army”). Because pre-kidnap Peter worked for an oil company (his id card gives him up), his captors believe he’ll bring big bucks, so when they release other members of the group, they haul him off to the mountains, where they abuse him while they await word from the negotiators back in town. But it so happens that Peter’s company has recently dropped its K&R insurance, and so Terry is sent home before he talks to the kidnappers. This leaves it to the stronger-than-she-yet-knows Alice and Peter’s scrappy sister Janis (Pamela Reed) to come up with the money (cash upwards of $500,000) to buy his return. But, importantly, before he’s yanked, Terry visits Alice and assures her that he’ll bring Peter home. So, she’s understandably upset when he leaves, and storms off to his hotel as he’s checking out, and makes a scene. He leaves for London, but feels really guilty about it, so he soon returns to take the gig for nothing. As they say on such occasions, whatta guy.
There is no question that Terry will come back, and there’s little question that he’ll eventually run a military assault to get Peter back. So the movie’s stuck with coming up with questions, to create some semblance of suspense. The smart move would have been to explore the political and economic angles of this K&R business, but Proof of Life doesn’t do that. Instead, it divides along two distinct, increasingly mundane narrative tracks: Peter getting grimy in the mountains and the women engaged in domestic-front fretting, manifested primarily by Alice’s scrunched-up, about-to-turn-sniffly face and Janis’ steely one. Alice and Janis spend much time jumping when the phone rings, dealing clumsily with bogus negotiators (these would be the “swarthy South American men” from Central Casting), then waiting while the bona fide negotiator (this would be Our Golden God Hero) spends hours on the phone, his tape machine recording every moment. Terry works assiduously trying to get “proof of life” (one of those photos where the victim poses with a current newspaper) and an agreed-on price. The process takes months (marked on the screen a la Nightline during the Iran Hostage Crisis “Day 44,” “Day 124” a device that once seemed alarming and now seems unoriginal). This means that, once Janis heads back to the States to find the money, Alice and Terry spend much time alone together, and this in turn means that… well, you know what this means. You’ve seen it on Access Hollywood.
Each significant moment is magnified a closeup of her hand touching his, another of his eyes meeting hers. But the blossoming mutual attraction only saps suspense from what would seem to be at stake here the collision of arrogant, “global” corporate culture and poverty-stricken “third world” resistance. Terry and Alice’s goo-goo eyes are just Hollywood-silly in the midst of this major crisis. Still, it’s worth noting that the U.S. government is nowhere in this scenario. Alice does approach Peter’s immediate boss, Ted (Anthony Heald, who played the mean doctor in Silence of the Lambs and is currently playing a weasley teacher on Boston Public), but it takes her much longer to realize that he’s untrustworthy than it takes you, since you’ve seen Heald’s previous performances. Once she’s cut off from creepy Ted, Alice is quite visibly “alone,” differentiated by her race and class from the folks who populate the streets, marketplaces, and televised protests against the oil company. And indeed, Alice’s bond with Terry begins with the fact that he’s Anglo, and she feels she can “trust” him.
Though at first Terry asks questions of Alice in order to gather information for his negotiations with Peter’s captors, it’s not long before they’re sharing all kinds of personal details. Too conveniently, they both have lost children, she by miscarriage (which, of course, makes her feel guilty and resentful towards Peter, but that’s a whole other movie), he by divorce and the ensuing emotional distance. Alice, being the girl here, is more expressive during their developing relationship: when she wants something from Terry, she yells, harrumphs, and cries, everything short of stamping her pretty little foot. Terry, on the other hand, has that stoic guy-adrenaline junkie thing going on, which makes him the ideal object of her desire, solidly masculine, but also seeking (however unconsciously) that special woman who might inspire him to settle down. Crowe delivers to all these hunk-expectations, and the camera loves him, pausing on his under-shirted physique and piercing eyes, mostly emulating Alice’s point of view.
But it’s not only Alice who likes looking at Terry. Conspicuously and unsurprisingly, his best mate and really, his soulmate, is Dino (David Caruso), another K&R expert who just happens to be in Tecala, working on the kidnapping of “the Italian” (he does have a name, but the guys, being so very guy-like, call him “the Italian” or “the package”). Unlike Terry’s job, Dino’s pays money and so, presumably, provides for the very expensive hardware they need to get the job done, since, of course, they do have to make the extraction. These men of action bond best when their lives are at risk, and there’s even a wee hint in Caruso’s smooth performance of Dino’s ambiguous sexuality (but the film doesn’t begin to touch that). Early on, Dino and Terry take down some “swarthy South Americans,” and afterwards, Dino smiles seductively and asks his boy, “So, that was fun?” And he’s right. This fast-moving mini-escapade is the most fun moment in the film the least ponderous and predictable, the best choreographed.
The other end of the spectrum is the un-fun tedium of the scenes showing Peter suffering through his captivity. Surely, Peter’s fear, frustration, and rage are palpable, and Morse is a subtle enough actor that the castaway beard and bloody feet don’t overwhelm his performance. But he’s surrounded by caricatures dirty, vicious scoundrels with serapes and rifles. Peter nicknames his nastiest guard, Juaco (Pietro Sibille), “Pig-Man,” a tag that the rebel accommodates by drinking too much, smoking dope, and shooting his gun recklessly. If Peter understandably demonizes his captors, the film never offers alternative, non-racist images of “South American” characters, presenting only stereotypes: even the one girl who speaks English is so visibly terrified of her guerilla “family,” that she won’t dare disobey them, even to save the good gringo (who desperately and ludicrously asks her to take him as her “family”).
Proof of Life thus sets up a choice for the very moral Alice, and presumably, for you. Early on, she makes clear that she resents the fact that Peter is working for an oil company at all, even if he is, as he puts it, “using” the company to do good work for “the people” (and at least some of “the people” don’t appreciate his efforts). She’s proven right, of course, when it becomes evident that the company screws over its white employees as quickly as it screws over any residents of the lands it seeks to plunder. But the fact that Alice’s choice is reduced to a romantic one between the man’s man and the nice man is unnecessary melodrama, obscuring the film’s much more intriguing political and economic dramas.