PROOF OF LIFE
Be prepared to be sorely disappointed if you go to Proof of Life expecting to see the "Sparks A-Flyin' Between Meg and Russell Show." As has been well-established in entertainment news outlets, co-stars Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe got a little thing going while filming Proof of Life. It's the kind of story that provides publicity a studio just can't buy, with voyeuristic viewers potentially taking the opportunity to watch a cinematic record of two attractive stars developing a major league case of the hots for one another.
As it happens, the relationship between Ryan and Crowe's characters is the worst reason to see Proof of Life. In fact, the filmmakers seem to do everything possible to make that relationship utterly inconsequential. Ryan plays Alice Bowman, a woman whose husband (David Morse) is working on a dam project for an American oil company in the fictional South American country of Tecala. One day, Peter is kidnapped by a band of drug-producing Marxist rebels, with the expectation that the oil company will pay a hefty ransom. Enter Terry Thorne (Crowe), a kidnap and ransom consultant for the oil company's insurer. He's ready to step in and run the negotiations until the oil company confesses that financial woes and an imminent merger deal will keep Terry off the case. But Terry ultimately decides to go freelance, working closely with Alice to free Peter while Peter himself faces daily challenges to body and mind.
The reason Terry decides to go freelance has something to do with his own major league case of the hots, only there's not much substance to that particular sub-plot. There are two major co-conspirators in the failure of Proof of Life's romantic angle: the timidity of director Taylor Hackford, and the casting of Meg Ryan. The script by Tony Gilroy does a fine job of setting up cracks in the Bowman's marriage, the kind that could easily lead to some straying during a pressure-packed situation. But Proof of Life only flirts with the bond forged between Alice and Terry, and chickens out of throwing them into a full-blown affair (a sex scene shot for the film was cut from the final version, perhaps out of concern that it would be caught up in the real-life story). Ryan, meanwhile, never develops into a complete character, with a back story that's made up of script assertions rather than performance. In a role like this, opposite a dynamic screen actor like Crowe, it becomes obvious that Meg Ryan is a Movie Star in a role that demands an actor.
While Proof of Life's major selling point sits there limply in the center of the film, there's plenty of great stuff going on around the perimeter. Morse, a superb character actor who seems only to be getting better with age, gets some wonderful scenes as he tries to cope with his situation. His battles of will with one edgy rebel provide the film's most tension-packed moments, and his strange friendship with a slightly mad fellow hostage (Gottfried John) gives depth to his fear of what might happen to him. There's more great material surrounding the details of Terry's profession, including his friendship with a colleague played by David Caruso (in a performance so vivid it just makes you want to cry over his career choices). And there's Crowe himself, whose charisma boosts the intensity of every scene he's in. As a film about the psychological pressures of being a hostage, Proof of Life scores. As a film about the psychological pressures of retrieving a hostage, Proof of Life scores.
And as a film about the psychological pressures of being a hostage's wife considering a little hanky-panky with the guy who's trying to retrieve your husband, it whiffs. It may seem unfair to drag the actors' personal lives into an evaluation of a film, but it's obvious from what's not on the screen that the film itself was ultimately compromised by those personal lives. Proof of Life had
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