starring Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse, Pamela Reed
screenplay by Tony Gilroy
directed by Taylor Hackford
by Walter Chaw Proof of Life is essentially a re-telling of Someone to Watch Over Me with some bits of Missing in Action, Papillon, Casablanca, and Bridge on the River Kwai tacked on witlessly and serving as a faint excuse for Russell Crowe to slap on fatigues and crank up the virility from "high" to "stud bull." For all of Crowe's smouldering presence and incendiary gaze, however, there is remarkably little chemistry between he and his infamous on-set flame, Meg Ryan. Whether this sterility is a result of a script that relies on cliché and unlikely "meet cute" scenarios, or a result of Meg Ryan's overreliance on trick two of her two-trick bag, I'm not certain. I'm content to call it an unfortunate combination of both.
Ex-British Special Forces commando Terry Thorne (Crowe) is a single dad of a thirteen-year-old boy who works for a "Kidnap & Ransom" negotiation organization. Contracted by large corporations, he protects employees working in unstable political environments. Meanwhile, in the fictional South American country of "Tecale," dam engineer Peter Bowman (David Morse) is abducted by a militant band of guerrillas and held for ransom. Distraught wife Alice (Meg Ryan) joins forces with Thorne to negotiate the return of her husband, who spends most of his days in captivity alternately having yelling fights with his teenage cokehead kidnappers and bemoaning the ever-deteriorating condition of his hiking boots. Complications develop--complications are resolved, and Thorne decides to help Alice get her husband back...maybe right after this back rub.
Split cleanly along three concerns, Proof of Life is a lackluster love story, a terminally predictable POW intrigue, and a tightly-edited action film. The greatest shame of Proof of Life is that there are only two action sequences occupying fewer than fifteen minutes of a 135-minute film. Russell Crowe is a fantastic action star--he has a physical presence that convinces with a quiet confidence and effortless machismo. Asked in a superb prologue to rescue a hostage from war-torn Chechnya and, in the end, to rescue a hostage from a fictional country meant to be Columbia, Crowe demonstrates the cool matinee idol qualities that brought him acclaim in Romper Stomper, L.A. Confidential and Gladiator. The always-interesting David Morse has the thankless task of being not only a cuckold, but a cuckold in the process of being marched across all of Ecuador--I mean "Tecala." As a side note, by creating a fictional South American country in order to avoid offending Colombia, it occurs to me that you actually only succeed in offending all of South America.
Proof of Life also functions as a failed attempt by Meg Ryan to resuscitate her credibility after a lengthy association with the Ephron sisters' evil comedies. Her bleary-eyed, scrunched-up preciousness is well and truly on its last legs and her insistence that her Alice Bowman character be played from a position of strength does little to mask the essential quailing quality that infects all her performances to some degree. As the middle 110 minutes of the film are dedicated to establishing a realistic "lovers in a dangerous time" relationship between the two, that there is no discernible chemistry between the stoic Crowe and the alternately hysterical and unpleasant Ryan is a fatal blow to the effectiveness of Proof of Life. One does wonder if Crowe and Ryan's dedication to hiding their off-screen romance manifests itself in an unfortunate reticence when they're asked to turn it on for the cameras.
Taylor Hackford is a very competent visual director who, too often, succumbs to sap and overblown finales to tell tales that would benefit from a better ear and a more confident hand. It comes as little surprise, then, that Proof of Life is a handsome-looking film that suffers from bad pacing and, despite the intelligence of the prologue, a plot with problems that are solved either by accident, coincidence, or thuggery. It's a reluctant blockbuster that resolves itself to be your typical action/adventure/romance all the same. Consider that despite intimations of depth and intrigue in the scrutiny of an international terrorist/hostage negotiator's craft, it begins with Rambo and it ends with Rambo. Worse is a ridiculously overwrought ending featuring an extended close-up on Russell Crowe's sad mug held for the entire duration of a Van Morrison ballad. Hackford makes a rather desperate choice to fashion a mock-pithy moment that transforms a predictable but cozy Casablanca ending into an unintentionally funny one.
The best scene in the film occurs in the first half-hour and it lasts for just a moment. On a rugby pitch, Thorne tells his boarded son that he'll be unable to watch a weekend game. Allowed to wordlessly convey a gamut of emotions running from pride to regret, Crowe makes his best case in this brief moment as our next Hollywood icon. In this, the only scene that strikes a resonant chord, there is a minimum of Tony Gilroy's (The Devil's Advocate) screenplay, a minimum of Hackford's breathless direction, and a complete absence of Meg Ryan. Just Russell Crowe on a field of battle, looking strong, mournful, and intelligent. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
Warner's DVD of Proof of Life presents a very nice 2.35:1, anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer that continues the studio's recent track record of archive-quality video releases. The lush rainforest of Ecuador just outside of Quito is predictably stunning and a brief scene inside an old cathedral staggers with its lush golden palette and the lack of bleed from the candlelight. The Dolby 5.1 mix makes good use of the surrounds during the opening and closing sequences, and Danny Elfman's intrusive score swells majestically at predictably-timed intervals. The dialogue is clear of distortion.
Taylor Hackford's commentary track is, frankly, awful. He has a great deal to say about the amount of research he's put into the screenplay and spends most of his time excitedly narrating the action unfolding on screen. If you're watching the film for the first time and have made the puzzling decision to watch it with the commentary track on, you might derive some kind of benefit from Hackford's blow-by-blow recounting; all others would do well to leave well enough alone. If you're curious as to whether Hackford makes mention of Ryan and Crowe's on-the-set dalliance (one that he has, since, blamed for the failure of the film), he does, once, only to say that both behaved professionally and "hid" their romance from the director. There are, however, two revealing passages where Hackford says that he and Ryan disagreed on how the Alice Bowman character should react emotionally, and that Ryan nixed Hackford's intention to include a deleted sex scene on this DVD release. Prima donna, anyone?
Better is a fifteen-minute "Making of" documentary that gets into the particulars of some of the difficulties inherent in filming in the middle of a politically-unsound South American rainforest. It bears the hallmarks of a haphazardly assembled series of sound bites but manages, all the same, to reveal interesting factoids ignored by Hackford in his loquacious yet tedious and empty commentary. Originally published: July 9, 2001.