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'Proof of Life'

Missing in action: 'Proof of Life' could have been better with a few more key pieces

Friday, December 08, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I have good news and bad news about "Proof of Life."

The good news is Meg Ryan is not doing yet another twinkly turn, as in "You've Got Mail." Yes, her blond hair is tousled and her wardrobe a combination of aging hippie and globe-trotting chic, but she's the wife of a kidnap victim and not given much reason to smile.

 
 
'Proof Of Life'


Rating: R for violence, language, some drug material.

Starring: Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse

Director: Taylor Hackford

Web site: www.proofoflife.com

Critic's Call:

   
 

The bad news is that the best chemistry is not between Ryan and off-screen paramour Russell Crowe, although their kiss smolders, but between the former gladiator and David Caruso. Yes, the same flame-haired Caruso who bolted from "NYPD Blue" and saw his career sink below sea level. Their characters know what it means to be danger-seeking, valiant vagabonds.

"Proof of Life," filmed largely in Ecuador, is set in South America where an engineer named Peter Bowman (David Morse) is building a dam. It will prevent flooding that has ravaged the countryside and, coincidentally, assist an oil company with a pipeline project.

Peter is married to a fellow American named Alice (Ryan) who has yet to adjust to this latest posting. She's not gotten over a miscarriage that occurred months before in Africa, and Peter's impatience with his slow-moving project spills over to their marriage. He's short-tempered and faults Alice for "not hitting the ground running" or finding a worthy project, as she has in the past.

Whatever problems they have are forgotten when Peter is kidnapped by a band of insurgents turned drug-selling terrorists. Peter's company calls in one of the best -- a gutsy, savvy and experienced K&R (kidnap and ransom) expert named Terry Thorne (Crowe) who is based out of London but spends his time in the world's hot spots.

Terry explains the kidnapping to Alice this way: "For you, it's emotional. For the people holding Peter, it's a business. ... Down here, it's simply about money." And in its own high-stakes way, it's a game. The kidnappers will ask for millions and Terry will have to negotiate a reduced, reasonable figure.

Alice and her visiting sister-in-law (Pamela Reed) feel they're in capable hands but Terry is yanked from the job. They're left with the locals, although Terry eventually re-enters the picture, as does a fellow K&R expert named Dino (Caruso). They literally hold the fate of Peter in their hands.

"Proof of Life" was written by Tony Gilroy but inspired by two sources: a Vanity Fair article called "Adventures in the Ransom Trade" and Thomas Hargrove's autobiographical book, "Long March to Freedom."

Hargrove spent 334 days in captivity after being grabbed in Colombia while driving to work in September 1994. By the time he returned home, his wife and college-age sons had assumed he was dead; he was alive, but 60 pounds lighter and with hair that had turned a garish orange from malnutrition. Like Peter's character in the movie, he was trying to help people; Hargrove's field was agricultural development.

"Proof of Life," directed by Taylor Hackford, seems to have a no-brainer, naturally sexy and suspenseful subject. Although it makes excellent use of its setting -- the marketplace is both alive and dangerous, the lowland foliage is green and overgrown, the mountain elevations foggy and chilly -- it should and could have been better. Why isn't it?

It suffers from several problems, starting with the relationship between Peter and Alice. We get no sense of their previous bond, which would have made her anxiety all the more palpable, and little sense of Alice herself. What exactly did she do in these other countries where they lived? How did this couple end up together in the first place?

Part of the problem with "Proof" is that Hackford must show us the passage of time and that can get repetitive and tiresome. He flashes information such as "Day 12" on the screen and shows us both halves of the K&R crisis -- Peter chained in the mountains, Alice chained to her fears, hopes and an increasingly appealing Terry at home.

The movie manages to be too talky and not talky enough at the same time. The evolution of the guerrillas into drug-running thugs is explained but the story cries out for some swapping of war stories between Terry and Dino. That, in addition to an opening scene set in Chechnya, would have presented a more full-bodied portrait of the perilous lifestyle of a K&R man and those he must rescue.

Hackford cast Crowe based on "L.A. Confidential" and then-unreleased versions of "The Insider" and "Gladiator." This time around, Crowe uses his native Australian accent, the physique he acquired for "Gladiator" (on display fleetingly, I'm sorry to report) and the confidence and charm evident in all of his roles.

Ryan is less sure-footed here than in those audience-pleasing lightweight romantic comedies. The role of one who waits, while being variously confused, angry, stoic, weepy and pessimistic, is not an easy one. She may be the biggest name in the movie but she's given the least to work with.

Morse's Peter appears so self-centered and driven at the beginning that he's almost unlikable. But we watch his mental and physical deterioration, which was achieved through dieting, hair and makeup changes, and grow to appreciate the horror and pain of his plight.

"Proof of Life," which takes its title from a negotiator's demand that kidnappers supply evidence that the victim is alive, covers so much territory that the leading characters and their own searches for proof of life get lost.



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