In an article that inspired the action-thriller, "Proof of Life,"
William Prochnau wrote, "The huge number of multinational executives
being abducted abroad has made organized kidnapping a big business. It
has also spawned a counter-industry – getting them back – and a secret
drama involving former spies and revolutionaries, AK-47s and armored
cars, helicopter drops and hideaways." With source material as
provocative as that, the resultant film should be a knockout and "Proof
of Life" does contain some moments that deliver on its promise, but far
too much of the film is squandered on the most tedious aspects of a
cumbersome, ill-conceived storyline.
The production starts off right, with commando-turned-hostage negotiator
Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) dodging bullets in Chechnia while rescuing
a victim from his abductors. Shortly after returning home, he gets
dispatched to South America for another mission.
That mission is Peter Bowman (David Morse), an American engineer
snatched by the ELT, a guerrilla outfit that started as a Marxist
organization, but devolved into just a bunch of heavily-armed thugs who
kidnap for a living.
Terry meets with Alice (Meg Ryan), Peter's wife, and settles in for the
negotiations. Because their captive is a corporate employee, the ELT
demands millions. What they don't know is that the company is on the
verge of collapse and has not paid the kidnap insurance bills on its
staff for months. When Terry learns the cold financial truth, he splits,
but something draws him back and he becomes even more determined to come
up with a way to get Peter home.
So far, so good, but the story then settles into mediocrity, cutting
between segments of Peter being mistreated by his dope-smoking,
coke-snorting, gun-toting captors and interminable scenes of the
molasses-slow negotiation process and the growing quasi-romantic
relationship between Terry and Alice. The film eventually delivers a
rousing action set piece, but by then it's too little, too late.
"Proof of Life" is particularly frustrating because you can see the film
it should have been. Scenes between Terry and his adrenaline junkie
cohorts, particularly a jittery operative named Dino ("NYPD Blue" vet
David Caruso), deliver the sense of danger and immediacy that is missing
during most of the movie. The film screams for more edgy camaraderie,
for more adventure, for anything other than more dreary looks at a
And half-assed is the operative term. Aside from some intense gazing,
which can be interpreted several different ways, scant evidence of
romantic feelings appear onscreen. A love scene between Russell Crowe
and Meg Ryan was filmed, then scrapped by director Taylor Hackford.
Consequently, a smooch between Terry and Alice late in the film left me
thinking, "Where the hell did that come from?"
The incongruous kiss is just one part of a poorly written script that
plays like a rough draft rather than a finished product. Alice and Terry
are each assigned one painful burden in a pale attempt to flesh them
out. For Alice, it's the memory of a miscarriage. For Terry, it's the
knowledge that his globetrotting job has strained the relationship
between him and his son. Is anything of substance done with this
The script is equally inept when depicting Peter's life in captivity,
shooting for a "Midnight Express" vibe, but failing because the captors
are left as stereotypes instead of people. The caricature status given
the terrorists is so blatant that, when one kidnapper displays an
exceptional level of animosity towards Peter, it's obvious he is merely
being set up as an identifiable target for the grand finale. Besides
Peter, only one character at the guerrilla camp is allowed to be human,
fellow prisoner Eric Kessler (Gottfried John, another white guy, of
"Proof of Life" gives viewers a great beginning, solid action near the
end and a closing scene between Terry and Alice that wants to be
haunting and poetic, but falls flat because the script fails to provide
sufficient groundwork for the relationship. The film's long, droopy
middle leaves good actors straining to wring substance out of filler.
Russell Crowe uses his great physicality to carry the home-front portion
of the movie and the talented David Morse manages to add some oomph to
the anemic camp scenes, but Meg Ryan comes off as simply
inconsequential. In supporting roles, David Caruso is wiry and
appealing, while Pamela Reed is strong as Peter's fiercely protective
sister, even though the script quickly softens her fire and ships her
Ultimately, "Proof of Life" takes a great idea and turns it into an
overlong exercise in missed opportunities, punctuated by a few powerful
sequences that show what would have happened had the writer focused on
psychology and adventure instead of uncooked mush.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott