By Ron Wells | December 8, 2000

Poor Taylor Hackford. He’s made good movies (“The Idolmaker”, “An Officer and a Gentleman”) and some goofy ones (“Devil’s Advocate”), but he’s no hack. Unlike many of his peers, he’s actually married to a brilliant actress his own age (Helen Mirren). Seemingly a good person and a good filmmaker, he should never had to expect that the great subject of his newest picture would be overshadowed by the high-profile affair between his two stars.
“Proof of Life” explores the significant problem of kidnap and ransom activity and the economics and institutional responses created to deal with it. In this fictional story, several years in the third world have inadequately prepared Peter (David Morse) and Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan) for their stay in a politically unstable South American country. Peter has good intentions in building a dam there. Unfortunately, the terrorists who one day abduct him only care about the oil company that hired him. That corporation’s insurer sends expert and former British SAS officer Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) to handle the ransom demands. A rising star in the field, Terry success derives as much from his ability to support the victims on either side of the negotiations as it does from the positive outcome of his work.
HOWEVER, once the oil executives realize Peter actually worked for an uninsured subcontractor, they pull all of their resources from securing Peter’s release. Having already established a rapport with Alice and Peter’s sister Janis (Pamela Reed), Terry must choose between his career and leaving the Bowman family to the wolves. Of course, even if he keeps the assignment, it doesn’t mean the situation can’t get much worse.
Tony Gilroy’s script has some fantastic research material in William Prochnau’s article, “Adventures in the Ransom Trade” and former hostage Thomas Hargrove’s book, “The Long March to Freedom”. From these sources, came not only authentic details of Terry’s job but the difficulties of Peter’s survival. As ransom negotiations stretch over months, his story is every bit as compelling as the one between Crowe and Ryan, and the amazing character actor is more than up to the task.
Still, it’s the story of the wife and the hostage expert that drives the film. Strangely enough, they do have quite a bit of chemistry, though I’d bet on Crowe to have heat with anything short of lawn furniture or Jodie Foster. Reportedly, Hackford cut a love scene between the pair, but it honestly wouldn’t have worked, anyway. The only real fallout of the couple’s off-screen relationship is some audience giggling over a couple of lines that take on special meaning.
Overall, the film is quite solid. There’s plenty of tension in a story where little seems either too convenient or too implausible. David Caruso is a welcome presence as Terry’s pal, Dino, the kind of supporting whacko the actor excelled as before he got caught up in “NYPD Blue”. This should be a great film, …except for something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s definitely not Crowe. He succeeded in a much more difficult role last year with Michæl Mann’s “The Insider”. That film overall was far tighter and well-paced, without the built-in elements of action and violence. Maybe Mann could have eliminated the weird dead spots that seem to slow “Proof of Life” down. That’s not to say this isn’t a good film. It just fails to be a great one, a pity considering the juicy subject. If it had really succeeded, the bonds forged by the actors in front of the camera might have eclipsed those forged when the cameras were off. Oh well. At least during the soon-to-be-released “Traffic” I didn’t find my reasons why Dennis Quaid’s weasely characters seemed so lonely and depressed.

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