Proof of Life (review)

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The one-sheet poster for Proof of Life is terrific, maybe even one of the best I’ve ever seen. A man and a woman are running, the world around them a blur. The expressions on their faces are grim, pained — their linked hands unite them in an us-against-the-world collusion. But are they running from something? To something? The image practically itches with danger and romance.

Would that the movie itself did as much. And it might have done, if only messy plotting, contextless direction, superfluous characters, often inept acting, and zero chemistry between its leads didn’t get in the way. It wouldn’t have taken a lot to make Proof of Life the tense, exciting, dynamic, angst-ridden film it should have been, and that makes its failure all the more disappointing.
American engineer Peter Bowman (David Morse: Dancer in the Dark, The Green Mile) has been kidnapped by revolutionaries in the (fictional) South American country of Tecala. Octonal, the U.S. oil company for whom he’s building a dam, puts K&R — kidnapping and ransom — specialist Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe: Gladiator, Mystery, Alaska) on the case… until an insurance snafu disappears any corporate money that might have been exchanged for Peter. So Terry — hard-hearted, professional, ex-Special Forces soldier that he is — flies off back home to London, leaving Peter’s wife, Alice (Meg Ryan: You’ve Got Mail, City of Angels), to despair. And then Terry flies back, having had a miraculous change of heart that convinces him to work for Alice to secure Peter’s return.

Proof of Life plays out the cold machinations of corporate politics as badly as The Insider did it well, letting Terry’s to-ing and fro-ing do the job, poorly. Oil companies and insurance companies, revolutionary guerrilla armies and strong-arm third-world police… they’re as bad as each other, we’re supposed to infer, and a sudden disgust with this is, I guess, Terry’s motivation for returning to Tecala, though that’s mostly just me trying desperately to fill in the enormous blanks Tony Gilroy’s script ignores. What turns Alice 180 degrees from suspicion of Terry and his motives to utter trust — with no intervening warming up to his brusque proficiency — is more than I can fathom.

As always, Crowe smolders onscreen, challenging you to just try to look away from him, but he’s in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Crowe is actually already in the taut psychological drama I wanted to see, his Terry needing to do his job well and bring Peter home but also finding himself drawn to Alice, all of that distress manifested in the things Crowe does not, as an actor, do — he does not touch her, he does not look at her… and when he does, the tiniest gesture is packed with feeling. His intense there-ness assures us that he knows Terry better than Gilroy or director Taylor Hackford (Devil’s Advocate) do, but even a cinematic god like Crowe can’t work in a vacuum. He needs to work with actors who give back to him as good as they get from him, and unfortunately, his leading lady is not a worthy opponent for him.

Ryan here proves herself a one-note actress, and her trademarked nose crinkling and hair tossing, which might suffice in a lighthearted film, is glaringly awful here. She’s like a little girl trying to play grownup, going through the motions without any real understanding of the emotional underpinnings. If her Alice is in the least bit attracted to Terry, through the long months of negotiations with Peter’s captors, we get no indication of it until the script forces her to acknowledge her feelings in words. The entire relationship between Alice and Terry is left to the story’s subtext, and Ryan has no subtext while that’s entirely what Crowe is about — he struggles with all sorts of inner demons while she stands around looking cutely upset, the same way that Demi Moore’s single glycerin tear in Ghost was meant to convey a devastating grief. After 120-plus days of worrying over her husband’s fate and harboring a guilt-inducing adulterous attraction, Alice should look nearly as haggard and worn out as Peter does, but she’s just as perky and adorable as she was on Day 1 — she might as well have lost her car keys as her husband.

It took my friend and I about 20 minutes of discussion to fix most of what’s wrong with Proof of Life — get rid of Peter’s useless and annoying sister Janis (Pamela Reed: Bean, Bob Roberts) and beef up the role of Dino (David Caruso), a K&R colleague of Terry’s; cut some unnecessary dialogue and switch a couple of scenes around; and make that explosion Terry and Alice are running from on the poster actually have some connection to the rest of the story instead of being nothing more than a tease to slip into the trailer, one that gets no payoff in the film. But there’s not much to be done about miscasting. The emotional depth onscreen in Proof of Life is so unbalanced that Crowe’s gravitational pull can just about make up for Ryan’s lack while they’re onscreen together, but the moment he walks off, the film falls crushingly flat.

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