Proof Of Life

Inspired by the 1998 Vanity Fair article "Adventures in the Ransom Trade," by William Prochnau, director Taylor Hackford tells the tale of American engineer Peter Bowman who, while trying to build a dam in the remote wilds of South America, is kidnapped by guerrillas and held for a $3 million ransom. He is abandoned by his company, but his wife Alice (Meg Ryan) won't give up on him as she seeks the help of K&R (kidnap and ransom) expert Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe). But, things turn out to be far trickier than expected as negotiations drag on for months and a romance develops between Alice and Terry in "Proof of Life."

Laura's Review: C+

Taylor Hackford's last two fiction features ("Devil's Advocate," "Dolores Claiborne") both had striking visual styles, one of "Proof of Life's" strongest assets. However, the story, inspired by the Vanity Fair article "Adventures in the Ransom Trade" and adapted by Tony Gilroy (whose credits include the Hackford films cited as well as stinkers "Bait" and "Armageddon) and the articles author, William Prochnau, is far less exciting than the gossip generated during the film's production.

Peter Bowman (David Morse, "Dancer in the Dark") is an idealist who's hooked up with an oil company to head their goodwill project - the building of a dam for the people of Tecala (the fictional country stands in for Ecuador, where the film was shot). Bowman's in trouble though - the oil company is on the verge of a takeover and he's being left in the lurch with a full crew, no money and no equipment. He's also going through difficult times with his hippie wife Alice (Meg Ryan), who's unhappy in Tecala, while also blaming him for the miscarriage she suffered eight months earlier in Africa.

As Peter drives back from his stalled construction site one day, the ELT, a former marxist group turned mercenary kidnappers and drug dealers, storm a roadblock taking hostages. Peter is led into the mountains and Alice is left friendless in a foreign country to negotiate with kidnappers. Enter Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe, "Gladiator"), a hostage negotiations expert (the film begins with him making a daring rescue in Chechnya), who quickly reassures Alice and her sister-in-law Janis (Pamela Reed, "Bean"). The next shoe drops when Alice is informed that the company has left them uninsured and Thorne exits, leaving her to rely on exactly the type of person he'd advised them to avoid - a local security man. In an inexplicable move, Thorne returns to save the day and begin the lengthy negotiations.

The film intercuts between two stories, one of which works far better than the other. Peter's ordeal with the ELT is a character study of a strong and rebellious man fighting for survival. Peter meets up with a 'mad missionary,' Eric Kessler (fine support from Gottfried John), a former Foreign Legionnaire who's perfectly sane yet plays the fool with their captors. The ELT are mostly interchangeable bad guys - filthy peasants with a predilection for partying, although their is a sympathetic woman as well as a strutting egoist whose demotion to pig herder sets up a grudge against Peter.

Meanwhile, things are fairly dull back with Alice and Terry. He gets on the radio and barters with a voice on the other end. She uses cigarettes as props and frets in the oversized sweaters costumed to make her look vulnerable. They're supposed to fall in love - we know this when Terry's partner Dino (a terrific David Caruso) spies Alice casually drink out of Terry's glass. While Dino gets suspicious, the audience is never given any indication of the couple's passion when they're on screen alone. Before the big climatic ending, where Terry and Dino storm the ELT camp, there's suddenly a kiss and some soulful staring. An ending straight out of "Casablanca" feels unearned (except for the beautiful friendship of Terry and Dino).

Technically, the film's arduous location shoot mostly pays off. The verdant jungle scenes give the entire film a green theme, although some city shots have a distractingly hyper-real quality. Danny Elfman's score complements the action without calling attention to itself.

Robin's Review: B-

Helmer Taylor Hackford has always provided interesting, star studded films from his romantic, Oscar-nominated "An Officer and a Gentlemen" through to the satanically satiric "Devil's Advocate." With "Proof of Life," the director/producer takes us into the secret world of kidnap and ransom. The end of the Cold War, over a decade ago, resulted in the end of financial backing by the Communist countries of various rebel groups worldwide. Without that monetary help, the revolutionaries turned to kidnapping, demanding huge ransoms from their victims, to cover their operating costs and expand their power base. Kidnapping became such a popular means of making lots of money that companies operating in high risk areas began securing "K&R" insurance for their executives.

In "Proof of Life," Peter Bowman is in the South American country of Tecala trying to get his vision built - a dam that will benefit the people of that country. But, the engineer works for an oil company that is taking advantage of the small country and its people by forcing an oil pipeline to be built. Bowman becomes a pawn in the conflict when rebels from the revolutionary group, ELT, put up a roadblock and take all the innocents they stop as hostages. Of course, Peter is, as the most visible representative of the capitalist oil corporation, a prime candidate for huge ransom demands.

Bowman, forced to trek across the Andes with his captors, leaves behind his wife, Alice, who turns to his company for help. K&R expert Terry Thorne (Crowe) arrives on the scene and assures Alice that all will be well and begins the delicate mission of securing Peter's freedom. But, corporate skullduggery and greed soon prove to be more important and Alice is told that there is no insurance, no company and no high level help to free her husband. With Terry suddenly taken out of the picture, she and Peter's sister, Janis (Pamela Reed), contact a local security firm to get Peter released, only to find out that they just want her money.

A crisis of conscience forces Terry to return to Tecala to help Alice get her husband back. The arduous ransom negotiations start to drag on interminably, week after week after week, as Terry and his rebel contact, Marco, barter over the life of the captive engineer. As the months go by, Terry finds himself attracted to the pretty, vulnerable Alice as he works to secure Peter's release. When negotiations fall apart, Thorne seeks the assistance of an American K&R man, Dino (David Caruso), who is trying to locate a kidnapped client of his own. Action replaces talk as Terry, Dino and his team head into the jungle to extract their clients from the hands of the rebels.

"Proof of Life" covers territory that has, until recently, remained in the misted shroud of secrecy. The world of kidnap and ransom is populated by former members of the CIA, FBI, Interpol, SAS and the military - men who are used to "negotiating" with an opponent holding an AK-47 assault rifle rather than a law book. The entire K&R industry was created by the social and economic changes in the world, necessitating its birth as a hedge against the lucrative abduction business. The story, provided by longtime Hackford collaborator Tony Gilroy, opens our eyes to this, until now, secret world that has changed the revolutionaries into drug dealers and worshippers of the almighty dollar.

Gilroy's screenplay, while steeped in the unknown world of K&R, has the feel of a re-creation of that greatest of American films, "Casablanca." The parallels between that classic and "Proof of Life" are more than passing, though the perspective is from a unique angle. Peter Bowman replaces Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) as the leader of the cause that draws Terry Thorne (filling in for Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)) into the fray as Peter's potential savior. Meg Ryan takes Ingrid Bergman's place as the loyal wife and love interest for Terry, while David Caruso's Dino takes over for Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines) as the good friend to the hero. (Actually, at one point, I half expected Crowe to recite the "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world?" line from the older flick.)

"Proof of Life," even with the "Casablanca" comparison, is still a routine thriller that walks through its paces well enough, but does nothing to try to get beyond the routine. The most intriguing part of the film is the story that follows Peter's plight while in the hands of his captors. Bowman, before the abduction, is totally committed to his mission to help the people of Tecala, putting the problems of getting his construction underway ahead of the needs of Alice. Their last time together was fraught with tension, but after the abduction, Alice becomes Peter's sole raison d'etre, keeping the man from falling into utter despair as his incarceration drags on. The romance that buds between Alice and Terry simply adds a bit more controversy to the film.

The production of "Proof of Life" was reportedly plagued by disaster and political intrigue throughout its making. The director made the decision to shoot the film on location in Ecuador and Hackford and crew found themselves flanked by two active volcanoes, mud slides and the same threat of kidnapping that the story, itself, is about. There was also the unfortunate death of a stand-in for David Morse that devastated the production team. This list of woes has its impact on the film as there is not a great deal of energy in the perfs by the principles, with the exception of Morse who does a fine job in what amounts to a one man show. Isolated from his wife and the life he knows, Morse's Peter must maintain his will to survive with only a tattered photo of Alice as a reminder of what he had. It's a close to the chest performance that says volumes with little dialogue.

The stars of "Proof of Life," Ryan and Crowe, give performances that say "star" rather than "actor." Both give credible perfs, but there is little of the chemistry that we've heard so much of about the couple's off-screen amour. Because there is little spark on screen between them, I found myself more interested in the plight of Peter than the interplay between Alice and Terry.

Supporting cast is a plus with a number of small, but effective, roles that help to flesh out the background of the film. Pamela Reed is solid as Janis Goodman, Peter's sister, who comes to Alice's aid. Reed gives strength to the role as her character provides the moral support that Alice needs during such trying times. David Caruso provides the sharp cynicism and humor to his Dino that brought the actor to our attention years ago. I hope this signals a comeback for the talented actor who has made some bad career decisions. Anthony Heald, as oil company honcho Ted Fellner, brings the same oily sleaziness to his character as he gave to his doomed doctor in "The Silence of the Lambs." Gottfried John is terrific in the little role of captive missionary, Eric Kessler, who is instrumental in Peter's continued survival and rescue.

The behind the camera work, as one expects from a Taylor Hackford film, is uniformly first class. Veteran Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose credits include such works as Krysztof Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique" and "Blue," gives a sharp lushness to the mountainous prison of Peter, while bathing his and Alice's luxurious home in a warm light that contrasts the harshness of the mountain locale. Bruno Rubeo, who wowed us with his production design in "Devil's Advocate," gives the same level of attention and detail to the varied sets in "Proof of Life."

In the end, "Proof of Life" is an exciting travelogue into a whole new world of international intrigue that makes you think twice about travelling in the hot zones. The generic adventure doesn't knock my socks off, but the film does rep the craftsmanship and attention to detail that can accompany a big Hollywood budget.