“Proof of Life” exhibits distressingly low vital signs. Given the exciting potential of the kidnap-and-ransom storyline, unusual locations and combustible star pairing, Taylor Hackford has delivered a disappointingly routine thriller that prefers to lean on tired Hollywood conventions rather than to explore fresh dramatic and stylistic territory. Despite the presence of the much-publicized Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe at the top of the cast, this Warner Bros. release from Castle Rock won’t be traveling too far at the B.O.
Globe-trotting from Chechnya to England to the jungles and mountains of South America, this large-canvas production contrives to make a life-and-death situation borderline dull, as well as to render a percolating romance enacted by two very appealing screen personalities almost entirely without electricity. Story’s backdrop is interesting and relevant, but nearly everything that has been placed in the foreground is hackneyed and lacking in imagination.
Crowe plays former SAS commando turned hostage negotiator Terry Thorne, who is first seen spiriting a man to safety through heavy fire between Russian soldiers and Chechen kidnappers. He’s then sent by his London bosses to the fictional South American country of Tecala, where the Marxist revolutionary org ELT has mutated into a large guerrilla force dedicated to the capitalist endeavor of kidnapping for profit.
Latest victim of the undisciplined but heavily armed band is Peter Bowman (David Morse), a Yank engineer in Tecala building a dam he sincerely believes will benefit the impoverished local populace. The ELT, of course, sees him as an imperialistic leech, marches him far into the high-altitude interior and demands $3 million for his safe return.
The resulting trauma of his vibrant wife Alice (Meg Ryan) is complicated by the fact that she and her husband haven’t been getting along too well since she had a miscarriage in Africa, the previous stop in their nomadic lives. Terry’s confident, can-do attitude toward the business of getting Peter back makes Alice focus, but some big business shuffling suddenly leaves Alice in the lurch without insurance, corporate backing or Terry’s help.
Although baldly presented in long speeches by Terry, the expository revelations about the shadowy world of kidnapping-for-ransom, the coded manner in which terms are negotiated and the cynical expectations of both sides are intriguing — as is, at first, Peter’s ordeal at the hands of the guerrillas.
When Terry, after having been pulled off the job, dramatically returns to help Alice for personal reasons, the yarn is clearly meant to escalate to a whole new level based on a supposed connection the negotiator and bereaved wife have developed. But all hands –Hackford, writer Tony Gilroy, Ryan and Crowe — fail to generate the required subtext and groundswell of desire.
Except for the relatively rote commando rescue raid led by Terry, a fellow ransom expert (David Caruso) and the latter’s band of faceless mercenaries, the picture’s final act therefore goes quite slack before being capped off by a “Casablanca”-like ending that fully reveals the new tale’s complete lack of emotional resonance.
Pic has its incidental failures as well: Scarcely individualized, the native South Americans, especially the terrorists, are portrayed as over-emotional, drug-happy, inept hysterics, a portrait that’s not only caricatured but lazy; also, the presence of vet English character actor Alun Armstrong as an inebriated older negotiator who’s been too long away from home makes one pine for the days when such a role would have been much better developed and then relished by the likes of the late Denholm Elliott.
Because of the lack of nuance and romantic undertow, Ryan and Crowe are left to skate across the surface of their roles; Crowe’s character, in particular, needed some good backstory to give the actor more to work with.
Morse was a good, offbeat choice to play the abducted husband, but most of his screen time is devoted to detailing his physical discomfort. Some nice moments of support are offered by Gottfried John as a “crazy” fellow kidnap victim who joins Peter in an unlikely escape attempt from the guerrillas’ mountain compound.
Some of the main interest is generated by the Ecuadorian locations, which range from scenic vantage points in Quito to rough wilderness. Craft contributions are pro.