Proof of Life (2000)

D: Taylor Hackford
S: Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe

Action drama inspired by the activities of real-life individuals (though otherwise fictional) featuring Russell Crowe (Gladiator) as a professional kidnap and ransom negotiator who isn't adverse to a bit of rough and trouble when retrieving his 'cargo' from hostile hands. When oil company engineer David Morse (Contact) is kidnapped by South American Marxist guerrillas (who, the film argues, have long since abandoned any 'real' political principles), wife Meg Ryan battles with the uncaring corporate executives and eventually retains Crowe's services. There is quite a lot of plot here, and quite a lot of contrivance, with unlikely or barely explained character reversals and at least two climaxes, all designed to keep things exciting regardless of the cost to its dramatic credibility. There is an ill-advised romantic sub-plot, some tantalising but underdeveloped glimpses at the life of 'good guy' mercenaries, and some stray plot strands which dissipate in the name of convenience, all of which threaten to bring down the film like a house of cards long before it ends. Luckily its star performances are robust enough to hold it steady and director Taylor Hackford (The Devil's Advocate) keeps it all together and moving forward.

The film begins with an interesting juxtaposition between Crowe submitting his coldly precise report of his latest retrieval to a boardroom of besuited execs intercut and the events themselves as filmed in a more traditional action film mould. The actor's low-key manner adds dramatic irony to the scenes, demonstrating the dehumanisation of the individual and the lack of concern for people in the boardroom. The execs discuss figures and premiums while Crowe, nursing a small head wound, remembers the haggard face and body of his cargo upon delivery from the hands of Eastern European rebels. These scenes actually provide the film with its thematic core. Most of the drama revolves around a conflict between professional ethics and personal concern for human life. It also attempts to demonstrate the fortitude of the human spirit by moving between scenes of the negotiations and the experiences of the kidnapee. The gambit works relatively well, but it does mean that the film has two levels on which to make mistakes, and in both cases the script tends to underestimate its audience and rely on generic clichés probably decided in a similar boardroom in Hollywood.

The most obvious mistake is the attempt to explore a romantic attraction between Ryan and Crowe. Whatever may have happened in the actors' real lives on set, the incorporation of a growing (if restrained) romantic bond between the characters reeks of a cynical attempt to play to Crowe's appeal to a female audience. It has little enough to do with the story, not least of all because it is among the many story threads which peter out uncomfortably in favour of others which take the movie forward. It is also awkward because it simply doesn't go far enough. Unable to really explore the complex dynamic of an emotional transference between the characters because it has so many other things to get on with, the film features several suggestive scenes and one kiss by way of 'romantic' content. Viewed alongside suffering Morse's constant thoughts of his wife at home the scenes are less resonant than they might be, because the 'betrayal' is pretty coy anyway. It is nonetheless enough of a distraction from the main business of the story to make it a constant irritation without being important enough to make it worthwhile.

There are other frustrating elements, including the failure to draw out the complexities of the political status of the kidnappers themselves. While the script cynically suggests that they have no actual politics, its constant criticism of neocolonialist capitalist exploitation and frequent references to the poverty of the native youth seem to suggest precisely the opposite, or at least that the grievances of the rebels have some basis in actual social unease. Again this is an uncomfortable story strand which eventually loses itself in contradictions. The film eventually just goes for an old-fashioned commando raid and shoot-em-up in which a villainous kidnapper gets his just desserts as the lowest common denominator demands. A comparably ambiguous female character simply disappears from the story. This neatly sidesteps the commercial trap of touching on thorny political subjects like a 1970s or early 80s political thriller would have. It's more Rambo than Missing (surprise surprise), and seems to have been uncertain about which way to go until post production and pre-testing.

Proof of Life is probably best viewed as hokum, and as such it will provide adequate entertainment. There is a variety of action and adventure, plenty of explosions and violent death, and the performances are fine. With nice cinematography, an actionful score by Danny Elfman, and plenty of other general technical competence, it fills its long running time quite well. But there is a sense that not far under the surface there was an effective dramatic action film here and an opportunity has been squandered to demonstrate some courage in letting it come through. It is also disappointing because in losing the run of its dramatic core purely for the sake of entertainment, the film actually turns out to be as cynically impersonal as those it seeks to criticise. Like Ransom it treads warily on a borderline between exploration and exploitation which it finally trips over in favour of pulling in the punters.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.