Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in Proof of Life (2000)


(director/writer: Taylor Hackford; screenwriters: Tony Gilroy/ inspired by the Vanity Fair article “Adventures in the Ransom Trade” by William Prochnau and by the book “Long March to Freedom” by Thomas Hargrove; cinematographer: Slawomir Idzak; editors: John Smith/Sheldon Kahn; cast: Meg Ryan (Alice Bowman), Russell Crowe (Terry Thorne), David Morse (Peter Bowman), Pamela Reed (Janis Goodman), David Caruso (Dino), Anthony Heald (Ted Fellner), Gottfried John (Eric Kessler), Pietro Sibille (Juaco), Vicky Hernandez (Maria); Runtime: 135; Warner Bros.; 2000)
“The film failed to have a heart.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A disappointing thriller considering the two headline stars Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe are well suited for their roles (gossip has it they found real romance together offscreen).

The location shots are gorgeous (actual location shots are in Ecuador’s Quito wilderness) and the escapist story about kidnap-and-ransom has enough of a tinge of realism to catch one’s interest. But all that is still not enough to stop the thinly plotted story from dragging in spots, bringing on a dullness to its critical life-and-death situations, and falling into clich√© territory from the onset. The film failed to have a heart. All it has to show for its effort is that it looks like a typical Hollywood action film. A good film to rest your brain cells and get carried away by the star’s screen presence. And if you do not judge the film on a more critical standard, I think you’ll get your money’s worth, that is, if you’re in the market for seeing a beautiful looking escapist film that is otherwise empty.

In “Proof of Life,” kidnapping is played as a business deal. Peter (Morse) and Alice Bowman (Meg) are a married couple suffering some turbulence in their relationship due to constantly traveling to Third World countries. She just had a miscarriage 8 months ago in an African country. They are stuck in the fictional country of Tecala, a backward South American place, where he is an idealistic engineer building a dam for the impoverished people under a dubious arrangement the country has with a major oil company — the company gets to put in an oil pipeline and the country in return gets a dam which the oil company constructs through a subcontract arrangement with someone else. Peter is the head engineer on the dam project for the subcontractors, but carries around an oil company employment card. This will work against him when the kidnappers get a hold of him and identify him with the hated oil company.

During a police road blockade he gets snatched by the guerrillas, a radical Marxist group called the ELT, who are now into the business of cocaine dealing and kidnapping for ransom. They bring him to the mountains and call him a gringo, capitalist pig, and hold him for an outrageous ransom. Thinking that he is covered by the oil company’s insurance policy, Terry Thorne (Crowe), a former SAS commando now working for a London based organization that does hostage negotiations worldwide, is asked to take the assignment to bring Peter back home.

A twist in the story comes, after the divorced Terry meets Alice and Peter’s suburban-type soccer mom sister Janis (Reed), who leaves her family in the States to help Alice in her ordeal. Terry gains their confidence as the only one around who knows what he is doing, but he is called off the case when his Kidnapping-and-Ransom organization learns that the oil company has no insurance policy for Peter due to the oil company’s new policy to save money on such items. Thus Alice is forced to be on her own and rely on corrupt local officials to handle the case, something that Terry warned her she shouldn’t do.

Unbelievably Terry returns to help Alice on his own and for free, without his company’s support. Evidently he has the hots for her but that, unfortunately, remains under wraps due to her guilt and his reserve, except for a brief kiss, as he instead puts all his energy into getting her husband back. It is now months since the kidnapping and the story ambles along showing the difficulty in negotiating and making contact with the ELT. It is shown that it is a game they have to play to bring the price down to the $650,000 they could afford.

Peter has a temper toward his captors and has a tough time adjusting to the cruel treatment he receives, as his role is reduced to dealing with his foot injury and trading barbs with his cruel captors. He is only sustained by the thoughts of his wife and the comfort of a fellow hostage, a former soldier in the French Foreign Legion and now a missionary who pretends to be crazy (Gottfried). Meanwhile Terry has fallen for Alice, but the story fails to make their relationship interesting. Instead Terry takes a lot of time explaining the guerrilla’s mentality to her and the audience, and about the situation they are in. It made for dull film fare, even though it smacked of some semblance of truth. This film just got butchered because it was unable to be imaginative and make its exciting plot line come alive. It just stalls and falls into a rather trite escapade into the jungle to rescue an American engineer from revolutionaries who are caricatured as being stupid, cruel, lazy, and high on drugs.

The climactic commando rescue raid on the ELT in the jungle is led by Terry and his fellow ransom expert (David Caruso)–who is in this country to negotiate for an Italian hostage, along with his band of indistinguishable mercenaries. Their raid lacked any emotion, as did the film’s final scene between Crowe and Meg. They shake hands and go their separate ways after Morse comes home; even though, the would-be lovers know they love each other. Their timid romance was easily forgettable. It certainly didn’t have the impact of the romantic parting in “Casablanca,” an ending this film tried to emulate. The film just didn’t have too much juice in its routine story, or much conviction in its generalized characterization of revolutionaries, oil moguls, and heroes.